London: British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday gave the first major indication that immigration rules for non-EU citizens such as Indians are set to be closely aligned with those for European Union nationals once Britain has left the economic bloc by next year.
The UK is at present bound by the EU’s freedom of movement rules, which offers nationals from the 27 EU member-countries an automatic right to work and settle in Britain. On the other hand, non-EU countries like India are subject to a strict visa regime and quotas under specific categories.
In an interview with the BBC, the prime minister said that the vote in favour of Brexit in the June 2016 referendum was a vote to end this dual system of migration.
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“The message from the British people was very simple. It was they didn’t want a situation where they could see people coming from the European Union having those automatic rights in terms of coming here to the United Kingdom, and a set of rules for people outside the European Union," May said in response to a question about the UK’s post-Brexit immigration plans. “What we will be doing is putting forward a set of rules for people from the European Union and people from outside the European Union," she said.
The government is set to publish its detailed immigration proposals in the coming months, which is widely expected to be a general toughening of stance on controlling the numbers that come into the country in line with the Conservative party’s target to reduce migration.
May has so far refused to rule out any post-Brexit preferential treatment for EU migrants, one of the issues which has deeply divided MPs and ministers within her own party. However, the idea that EU and non-EU migrants would get a level playing field in terms of immigration was the central plank on which many of the leading Brexiteers campaigned for a vote in favour of leaving the economic bloc.
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“The pressures being put on our services by immigration from the EU has meant that tough limits have been put in place on immigration from outside the EU. This means that our relatives struggle to get visas to come to the UK for family celebrations, restaurants cannot employ skilled chefs from abroad, our temples cannot bring in priests, and we cannot bring people in for business, cultural or sporting events – as well as the thousands of talented professionals like doctors, teachers and engineers," said Gujarati-origin Priti Patel, former UK cabinet minister and a prominent pro-Brexit campaigner.
“Once we take back control of our borders and ‘Vote Leave’, we can have an immigration system that is fair to all and allows us to bring in the brightest and the best from across the world," she said. Other Indian-origin pro-Brexit MPs, including Rishi Sunak – the son-in-law of Infosys chief Narayana Murthy, and Goan-origin Suella Fernandes had joined Patel in signing an open letter in the lead up to the Brexit referendum making similar arguments on immigration, which marked one of the most contentious issues in the Brexit debate.
The letter issued in May 2016, a month before the referendum, read, “As well as damaging our economy, membership of the EU has left Britain vulnerable to the pressures of mass uncontrolled levels of immigration from Europe. The pressures this causes means that we have to turn away qualified doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs from non-EU countries who would make a positive contribution to this country". “The ancestors of many people we represent fought alongside the British in two world wars, but are now forced to stand aside in favour of people with no connection to the United Kingdom. This is unfair".
May’s comments on the issue this week mark the six-month countdown to Britain’s formal exit from the EU on 29 March, 2019.
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In the interview, to be fully aired as part of the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme on Monday night in the UK, the premier also issues an ultimatum to critics who have questioned her strategy on Brexit. “I think that the alternative to that will be having no deal," she said, in reference to her so-called Chequers plan which had deeply divided different sections of the political divide.
Meanwhile, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson fired his latest attack on her plan in his weekly newspaper column, claiming it would usher in “foreign rule" for the first time since the Norman conquest in the 11th century. He said the talks with the EU were on course to end in a “spectacular political car crash".
The British premier is now set to take her plan to the EU at a crucial meeting in Salzburg on Tuesday and indicated that the Europeans were ready to sit down and discuss the proposals. “This is a serious, workable proposal," she said, in reference to her plan which envisages a “common rulebook" with the EU for trade matters.