Britain will not offer European Union citizens preferential immigration status after Brexit, the government said Tuesday, announcing a system designed to give migrants with skills the U.K. needs priority over low-skilled migrants.
At present, all EU nationals can live and work in Britain under the bloc’s free-movement rules, but that will change after the U.K. leaves next year.
Announcing Britain’s biggest immigration changes in a generation, Prime Minister Theresa May said that the new system “ends freedom of movement once and for all” — a key government promise on Brexit.
“For the first time in decades, it will be this country that controls and chooses who we want to come here,” May said.
Under the proposals announced at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, applicants from any country wanting to settle in Britain will have to meet a salary threshold, and will only be able to bring their family to live with them if they are sponsored by their employers.
The government confirmed its previous commitment that all the 3 million EU citizens currently living in Britain can stay, even if the U.K. leaves the bloc without an agreement on future relations.
Despite the government’s assertion that all countries will be treated the same, ministers and business groups have said the U.K. could offer preferential access in return for free-trade deals — including one with the EU.
The announcement includes a plan to speed up entry for short-term tourists and business visitors with a system of “e-gate visa checks” at airports.
Immigration is a divisive issue in Britain, and reducing the number of newcomers was a major factor for many who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. More than 1 million EU citizens have settled in Britain since eight formerly Communist eastern European nations joined the EU in 2004.
May said that “for too long people have felt they have been ignored on immigration and that politicians have not taken their concerns seriously enough.”
The Conservative government has a longstanding goal of reducing net immigration below 100,000 people a year, which it has never come close to meeting. The current level is more than double that.
The government’s post-Brexit plan does not mention a figure, but says immigration will be set at “sustainable” levels.
Julia Onslow-Cole, head of global immigration at PwC, said businesses regarded the 100,000 target as “very unhelpful.”
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who was in charge of immigration policy until earlier this year, said the target had not been officially dropped, “but I don’t think you’ll find many secretaries of state championing it ever-louder.”
Businesses in areas such as farming, food manufacturing, hotels and domestic care, which rely heavily on workers from the EU, warned they could face employee shortages under the proposals.
British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson said the immigration system should be “demand-led” rather than based on a “cut-off line somewhere arbitrarily on salary or types of skills.”
Pro-EU Labour Party lawmaker David Lammy said ending free movement from the EU was “an act of national self-sabotage that will lock us out of the world’s largest single trading bloc that happens to be on our doorstep.”