Brexit and Migration: A Disastrous Vote that Accomplishes Nothing

Adam Luedtke
City University of New York

The long-term ramifications of the Brexit vote remain unclear. There is no historical analog for a country withdrawing from a supranational federation as deeply and multi-dimensionally integrated as the European Union (EU). Legally, EU treaties will cease to apply to the United Kingdom (UK) two years from when it announces its intention to leave, unless a formal Withdrawal Agreement has been negotiated. However, the legal ambiguity that would result from eventual withdrawal ensure that, de facto, Brexit will take decades.

The UK’s economy is deeply tied to the EU through goods, services, capital and labor. The UK trades more with EU countries than it does with the rest of the world. Therefore, Brexit cannot deliver any more independence or autonomy from Brussels than that currently “enjoyed” by non-members like Iceland or Norway, who are similarly tied to the EU’s economy. Iceland and Norway must comply with EU legislation over which they have no say in drafting or modifying.

Therefore, the vote’s promise of “leave” is legally hollow and practically ineffectual. It is only momentous for the EU in one respect: the heavy symbolic blow it deals to the democratic ideals underpinning the EU. As a statement against globalization, immigration and technocracy, Brexit is a victory for the nationalist populism haunting Europe since the 1990s.

A wealth of data shows that such populism is motivated most directly by opposition to immigration, and the Brexit vote was no exception. The will of the British majority is for less immigration, and polls show “leave” voters saw Brussels as enabling or causing immigration. Sadly for xenophobes among the “leave” voters, however, the belief that Brexit can significantly decrease immigration is incorrect. Withdrawal from the EU allows no avenues to reduce immigration and thus (where foreigners are concerned) accomplishes nothing. In fact, EU immigration policies have helped the UK control immigration, by preventing many asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants from entering the EU or transiting to the UK.

Of the roughly half-million foreigners entering the UK in 2015, the majority were so-called “third country nationals” (TCNs), meaning they were citizens of non-EU states. Most TCNs came legally to work, study or join family in the UK, while a small minority were asylum claimants or undocumented entrants. A minority were EU nationals, with rights of free movement and settlement. Since the “leave” vote was motivated by reducing any or all of these five immigration streams, what are Brexit’s possible effects (if any) on specific laws and outcomes regarding foreigners in the UK?

1) EU nationals

It would be difficult for the UK to block immigration of EU nationals without retaliatory measures being taken against British tourists, students, workers and expatriates on the continent. Norway offers a good example of a non-EU member which must participate in Schengen* and other EU laws for economic reasons. Norway actually has a higher proportion of foreigners from EU countries in its overall population than the UK does in its overall population. Therefore, Brexit offers no alternative for the UK to reduce immigration by EU nationals (other than making the UK a poorer and less desirable destination).

2) Family migrants

The UK remains bound by international humanitarian law, which favors keeping families intact. Under its right to opt out of all EU immigration law, secured by Tony Blair in the 1990s, the UK decided not to adopt the EU’s family reunification directive, which provides common rules for family migration. Thus, Brexit offers no alternative for the UK to reduce family immigration by TCNs.

3) Labor migrants

As with family migration, the UK has always maintained its own immigration laws regarding foreign students and workers, opting out of EU laws covering labor migration by TCNs. Thus, Brexit offers no alternative for the UK to reduce the immigration of TCN students and workers.

4) Asylum-seekers

The UK remains signatory to the Geneva refugee convention, so its core obligations to asylum-seekers under international humanitarian law remain in force. The UK has selectively opted in to the EU’s Common Asylum System, which has been quite useful to the UK from a xenophobic perspective. EU asylum policy has clearly prevented many refugees from reaching the UK, by forcing states on the EU’s southern and eastern borders to detain, host and process asylum-seekers in transit. If the UK leaves this EU asylum system, Brexit will have removed both legal and political incentives for countries like Greece, Italy or France to prevent the movement of asylum-seekers through their territory to the UK, where they will still be entitled to a hearing upon arrival. Thus, Brexit offers no alternative for the UK to reduce inflows of asylum-seekers.

5) Undocumented migrants.

Since it already has the right to opt out of any EU immigration policy, the EU has allowed the UK to have the best of both worlds as far as “illegal” immigration is concerned. The UK has generally chosen only to opt in to EU immigration laws that help control or restrict the movement of undocumented migrants, including suspected “bogus” asylum-seekers, as mentioned above. Other examples include the European Carrier Sanctions Directive (punishing airlines and other transportation companies who bring undocumented migrants), Frontex (the EU’s border patrol agency), and a range of other security measures such as biometric databases for fingerprinting asylum-seekers (to combat identity fraud and “asylum-shopping”, whereby multiple claims are lodged). It is difficult to estimate how many undocumented migrants have been prevented from entering the UK under these common EU measures, but the numbers are substantial. Losing access to joint EU border control measures would likely result, if anything, in a large increase in illegal entry to the UK. Thus, Brexit offers no alternative for the UK to reduce illegal immigration.

Brexit thus accomplishes nothing in terms of allowing the UK to reduce immigration, whether by TCNs or EU nationals. It is a disaster only for the vision of a democratic federation of nations in Europe.


Adam Luedtke is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York – Queensborough Community College. He received his Ph.D. from University of Washington, and has held academic positions at Princeton University, Washington State University and the University of Utah. He has written numerous books and articles on immigration and European integration.

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2 thoughts on “Brexit and Migration: A Disastrous Vote that Accomplishes Nothing

  1. Sorry Adam, but must disagree. Your basic premise is that UK trade patterns with the EU won’t change. I agree this is unlikely, but it’s not impossible and the Brexit vote actually makes marginal (but hey, that’s what I’m told economists care about) change more likely.

    1. Does the Brexit vote make marginal change away from EU trading partners more likely? Let’s think about this. Let’s say you run a British company with established import/export/staff/finance ties to companies in EU countries. You are now going to shift that business to non-EU countries, based on this referendum? Is that your argument?

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