May intervenes to speed up new UK immigration plan

LONDON — The U.K. government has brought forward plans to publish its post-Brexit immigration policy after Theresa May intervened to speed up the process, according to senior British officials.

A government white paper setting out the proposed new immigration rules, ending freedom of movement for EU citizens in the U.K., has now been pencilled in for publication before parliament goes into recess for its summer break in July, although this could still slip, two senior officials said.

Under former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the Home Office had repeatedly delayed publication of the new immigration proposals, sparking alarm among Brexiteer ministers who want the government to step up planning for a “no-deal” scenario in negotiations with Brussels.

The publication of the plans will be a “massive moment” for the government, according to one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. The proposals could emerge at a highly sensitive moment in the Brexit negotiations, just months before the October deadline for the final exit package to be agreed.

The issue is contentious and, for millions of people, personal. Whatever course the government embraces, it will surely alienate one or more key constituencies.

A path favored by many Brexiteers is to treat EU citizens no differently than any other nationals.

Several options have been raised. During the EU referendum campaign, Brexiteers called for an “Australian points-based system” to replace EU rules that ensure freedom of movement across borders. However, the prime minister rejected the proposal not long after moving into No. 10. The points-based system does not set a limit or target for reducing immigration, but is instead based on a countrys economic need.

Another option floated by some in Westminster is to create a European visa area offering EU citizens preferential access to the U.K. To its critics this would amount to “freedom of movement in all but name,” even if the U.K. government retained some powers to limit access, using a so-called emergency brake. Many senior MPs believe such an offer could be the key to unlocking a preferential trade deal with Brussels while still retaining sovereign control over immigration.

A path favored by many Brexiteers is to treat EU citizens no differently than any other nationals, granting access to the U.K. under a single international visa regime.

Any perceived crackdown on EU citizens rights to move to Britain for work could undermine any goodwill built up between the two sides in the last year of talks on a divorce settlement.

“Its not an official negotiating topic, no, and no one expects it to become one. But no one seriously doubts its not still an issue” — Diplomat

Home Office officials had previously said the white paper — a policy document setting out the governments proposals for future legislation — would not be published until the fall and possibly as late as the New Year.

However, amid mounting tension in Cabinet, the prime minister stepped in to order the Home Office to speed up publication, the two officials said.

Rudd had agreed to the new speeded-up timetable before her resignation, a senior government aide said.

A second official confirmed the prime minister has made clear to Rudds successor as home secretary, Sajid Javid, that one of his priorities should be to get the new system in place. “The prime minister wants to see this brought forward,” the official said.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “There has been an agreement to bring forward a white paper and that is what we intend to do.”

The U.K.s new Home Secretary Sajid Javid | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

One EU27 diplomat said that while officials in Brussels had accepted freedom of movement would no longer apply in the U.K., the new system would still have an impact on talks between London and Brussels.

“Its not an official negotiating topic, no, and no one expects it to become one,” the diplomat said. “But no one seriously doubts its not still an issue.”

By publishing the immigration plan so early, the government risks accusations of jumping the gun on discussions over Britains future trading relationship with the EU.

One non-EU ambassador from a major advanced economy, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the trade deal would boil down to a trade-off between freedom of movement and access to the European single market for Britains giant financial services sector.

The new timetable also means the paper will be published before the long-awaited Migration Advisory Committees report into the economics of immigration, which Home Office officials had until recently said would inform the governments policy.

The committee has been asked to report by September 2018.

In February, the home affairs committee in the House of Commons said there was still “considerable uncertainty about when the white paper will be published.” It said the delay had caused “anxiety for EU citizens in the U.K., uncertainty for U.K. businesses and concern in parliament.”

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