What’s the point?

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 13.07.2016

Behind the door of Number 10 a Himalayan mountain of work awaits our new prime minister. There are prisons to reform, railways to build and Brexit negotiations to get underway. Theresa May has already indicated that greater control of immigration will be a priority, and while no model for future immigration laws has been settled on, a points-based system is a plausible working assumption. On its own, this will not give May the control she seeks. There will have to be sweeping changes to domestic life.

The first problem is working out what to do with Europeans visiting the UK. A points-based system allocating visas for long-term immigrants can sit comfortably alongside visa-free access for tourists, and already does for some visitors to Britain. Canadians, for instance, have to have a visa to live and work in Britain, but can visit for up to six months without any such paperwork.

This seems unlikely to work with the continent. A trip from Canada to Britain is not a negligible expense, and Canada is a prosperous G7 nation, so the temptation for large numbers to enter as tourists intending to work on the black market is unlikely to be large. For people in eastern and southern Europe, that may not be the case.

One way around this might be to accept that some illegal working will likely occur, and to combat that on the ground. UK employers are already required to conduct a ‘right to work’ check, making sure that prospective employees are permitted to work in Britain. Similarly, landlords must similarly check that their tenants are permitted to be in the UK. Looking for stricter enforcement of these rules, with swingeing penalties for those found to be breaking them, may be a sufficient deterrent.

The alternative would be to require visas for all entrants. This might give us greater control by allowing us to pick and choose whom we allow to enter Britain. It could also help us limit the numbers ‘disappearing’ once they’ve arrived by letting us keep tabs on people entering and leaving the UK.

On the other hand, it would entail spending quite a bit more on bureaucracy and would discourage tourists. The question becomes a neat microcosm of Brexit: is an increase in “control” worth the economic damage and disruption?

In this case, it may well not be. We would probably not be able to minimise the damage by demanding visas only from ‘high risk’ countries – allowing visa-free access for French people but not Bulgarians, for instance. Attempting to do so would invite retribution from the EU as a whole, and could well see the EU reciprocate by imposing visa requirements on Brits.

More to the point, requiring visas for EU visitors would likely require a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This could reopen wounds that are still healing after decades of strife, and as a matter of policing it may be less than practical; the border is several hundred kilometres long.

Full free movement between both parts of the island, on the other hand, would leave a gaping loophole in Britain’s new border controls. An alternative might be to harden the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. There are already checks on flights between Northern Ireland and the UK. It may be a relatively straightforward matter to extend identity checks to all flights and ferries between Northern Ireland and the UK, even though it would be inconvenient and expensive to do so.

This assumes, of course, that the border with Ireland is a matter for London and Dublin. Professor Dagmar Schiek, chair of EU law and policy at Queen’s University Belfast, points out that this may not be the case. The rest of the EU may have to agree to any deal we strike.

Edited by Alan Wheatley