One of the many circles Theresa May is trying to square is how to keep the Irish border open while stopping free movement of people from the EU. The problem is devilishly hard to solve because, since Ireland is part of the EU, all European citizens will continue to have an automatic right to go the Republic. Without border controls in Northern Ireland, they can stream into the UK.
But the government thinks it may have a solution. I’m told that, post Brexit, it won’t put any extra checks on EU citizens who just want to visit the UK or do business here. The only visas will be for people who want to work. As such, there won’t be any point in EU citizens who want to get into Britain taking a roundabout route via Ireland. They can just jump on a plane, ferry or train and come to the mainland as they have in the past.
All this is fine, as far as it goes. Imposing visas would gum up business and tourism as well as provoke a tit-for-tat visa requirement on Brits wanting to visit the Continent.
The question is how we can then stop EU citizens who fail to get a work visa from working illegally. Here the government doesn’t yet have full answers. But its initial thinking seems to be that we should use the current approach of relying on firms to crack down on illegal workers. Companies that employ workers illegally can be heavily penalised if they are caught – unless they cooperate with the authorities, as Byron, the hamburger chain, did last month in a sting operation that rounded up migrants from Albania, Brazil, Nepal and Egypt.
The snag, of course, is that the current system isn’t terribly effective at stopping illegal migration. There may be up to a million of them already in the UK, a former head of the UK Border Agency told The Times earlier this month. By definition, these are all non-EU citizens. The risk with the approach the government seems to be prepared to adopt is theses could be joined by an army of illegal EU migrants.
And remember that, whatever one’s views about free movement – the evidence suggests it is, on balance, positive – illegal migration is clearly bad. Illegal workers don’t pay taxes and are susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous bosses. They are often paid below the minimum wage, putting pressure on indigenous workers’ wages. Meanwhile, the firms that employ them enjoy unfair advantages compared to honest, law-abiding companies.
Now, maybe, the government can find ways of tightening up the system with higher penalties for employers that break the law, more inspections to catch illegal workers red-handed and an active deportation policy. In other words, more red tape. But, even then, how will we stop an Estonian who is sent back to Tallinn jumping on the next plane to Gatwick? And, if the answer is that we will check their passport, what is to stop them taking a Ryanair to Dublin and entering Britain by the back door?