Migrant registration plan won’t fulfil Brexiter wishes

by Luke Lythgoe | 28.09.2017

Theresa May pretended she would take control of our borders from March 2019 in her recent Florence speech. Although EU citizens would be free to come here during the two-year transition period she is asking for, they would have to register with the authorities. But to get her transitional deal, the prime minister will have to implement a fairly soft-touch registration system.

The UK is already allowed to register migrants under EU law, so May can at least keep her word. The EU’s directive on citizens’ rights says that, for any stay over three months, member states have the right to “require citizens (of another EU country) to register with the competent authorities in the place of residence”.

All member states except Ireland have systems for EU citizens to register their residency, according to the European Commission. The UK is one of three states where registration is currently optional. So we didn’t need to quit the EU to do all this.

But there are also limits to how tough the registration rules can be. For example, countries cannot expel another EU national unless they are an “unreasonable burden” on the social welfare system or there are grounds of “public policy or public security”. There are also strict rules on how migrants’ details are stored on databases and what type of ID they have to provide to authorities.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, has made clear that Brussels will not tolerate any punitive measures on its citizens. In reaction to May’s Florence speech, he wrote that the transition period must be a “continuation of the EU acquis” (body of laws) and that meant a “new registration mechanism for EU citizens… is out of the question”.

This will mean another transition-period setback for zealous Brexiters, keen to clamp down on EU migrants by creating a hostile environment of fines, detention or expulsion. The “take back control” slogan has been shown yet again to be based on hot air.

Not that we should be wanting to drive Europeans out of the UK in any case. They contribute to our economy, work in vital services such as the NHS and pay more in tax than they receive in benefits.

On the other hand, there is a perfectly reasonable case for registering EU citizens when they come here, provided it’s not punitive. That way, we would know how many live here and what they are doing. We could then plan effectively for public services and infrastructure. We could also remove those deemed an unreasonable burden on the welfare system, which in UK law is currently those not self-sufficient after six months.  

It is sensible to do this if we quit the EU. It’s also sensible to do it if we change our minds and decide to stay.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon