Immigration was a driving force in the Brexit campaign. Many Britons said that the right to free movement within the European Union drove too many foreigners to the UK – perhaps more than the country could absorb. Regardless of whether that supposition is true or not, what is clear is that unwinding the UK from the European immigration system is going to be far more difficult than many anticipated.
Brexit Immigration Obstacles
The UK was never part of the Schengen area – it kept a separate border regime which allowed free movement for EU citizens, but reserved the right to refuse entry to anyone else. On its own, this “opt-out” from Schengen would theoretically make Brexit easier, as the UK already has separate border control systems in place.
Ireland is what makes Brexit complicated from an immigration standpoint. Ever since Ireland gained its independence from the UK, the two countries have had a gentlemen’s agreement about border management. Under the Common Travel Area, it has been understood that harmonized immigration policies allow for free movement of any travelers between the UK and Ireland – essentially a mini-Schengen, except that it was never written down as a formal treaty. In 2011, the two countries harmonized their visa policies as well.
In practice, this means that there is no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not only are there no border guards or border stations, there are no border markings – not even a “welcome to” sign.
When both countries were part of the EU, the Common Travel Area was not a problem. It was even laudable – a prime example of the free movement principle in action. But now Brexit will, for the first time, force a difference in the two countries’ approach to immigration policy.
EU citizens will enjoy free movement privileges to Ireland, but (presumably) not the UK. Ireland’s visa policy will remain harmonized with EU laws, while the UK will be free to implement a separate regime. If dissolution of the Common Travel Area pushes Ireland to join the Schengen area, that would make the situation even more complicated. This is where the lack of a border will prove tricky, particularly for land movements where there is no infrastructure to speak of.
Information sharing is another potential issue. Over the past few years, the UK provided a series of grants to Irish law enforcement to digitize and strengthen its border control systems. In exchange, Ireland shared all of the border control information they collected with UK authorities. As the legal regimes for immigration begin to diverge, however, that information exchange may be shut down as a result of EU data privacy rules. That in turn could end UK support for Irish border control systems, leaving them disconnected from any outside data source.
Easing the Transition
Technological tools like biometrics may ultimately help to ease the gradual separation of the UK from both the EU and the Common Travel Area. Building a border control regime from scratch will not be easy, but the possibility of “leapfrogging” on infrastructure investments could be the silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud.
Yet before any of those investments are made, the thorny policy issues will have to be resolved. Given the emotion and heady politics of the Brexit campaign, that is not going to be an easy task.