Brexit: UK Severs Final Ties to EU Free Movement Rules

November 9, 2020 Updated: November 10, 2020

The United Kingdom on Monday severed its last constitutional ties to EU immigration rules, with the passing of a bill that ends the bloc’s cornerstone principle of free movement.

Ending the freedom of movement was a key demand of many of those who supported Brexit. The new law means that EU citizens will be subject to the same immigration rules as people from the rest of the world in the new year—except those already living in the UK who have obtained or are applying for settled status.

“After many years of campaigning, I am delighted the Immigration Bill which will end free movement on 31st December has today passed through Parliament,” Home Secretary Priti Patel wrote in her announcement on Twitter on Monday. “We are delivering on the will of the British people.”

The final version of the bill, which has been making its way through lawmaking chambers since the spring, was voted through by Conservative MPs last week against opposition from the Labour Party.

On Monday, the bill passed the final hurdle of potential amendments in the House of Lords, prompting Patel’s announcement.

People from the Republic of Ireland will be unaffected by the change and will be allowed to continue to move to and work in the UK.

UK EU
The flag of the European Union and the British national flag are flown on poles during a demonstration by supporters of remaining in the EU, outside the Palace of Westminster in London on Feb. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

European Economic Area citizens and family members already living in the UK can apply for settled status under a scheme running since March 2019. There is a grace period of six months for applications after the new rules come in to force at the end of the Brexit transition period on Jan. 1, 2021.

After that date, all immigrants will be subject to a points-based system, which the government says will be spelled out in secondary legislation.

The government says that the rule-based system will be a modified version of the system currently used for non-EU immigrants.

The EU principle of free movement was paradoxically enshrined into UK law during the Brexit process. As the UK prepared to sever constitutional ties, not knowing which EU laws and regulations would be wanted or not in the future, Parliament in 2018 simply copied and pasted all EU laws into UK law. The logic was that lawmakers could ditch or amend legislation piecemeal in the future.

The Immigration Bill changes the UK law that retained EU rules.

Allowing special provisions to Irish citizens avoids the issue of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. However, the government says that British and Irish citizens have been able to come and go across borders under a unique free-movement arrangement since the 1920s. “This status existed prior to the UK’s membership of the EU, and gives effect to the particularly strong historical, economic, and cultural links between the UK and Ireland,” according to the Home Office.

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