Once the UK leaves the EU on 31 January, the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by Boris Johnson based on Theresa May’s earlier version, will come into force. The Agreement specifically states that the transition period, which is 11 months long and during which a permanent deal is supposed to be negotiated, can only be extended once, putting an end to the cycle of delays and fresh extensions which have dominated the Brexit process since the referendum in 2016. It also states that once the UK leaves, Article 50 can no longer be revoked, meaning that the only way to become a part of the EU will be to re-apply and start the process from scratch. This is set to happen on the 31 January, only two weeks from now – Brexit is real, unavoidable and rapidly approaching.
As that knowledge seeps through to the broader public, the European Parliament passed a resolution last week expressing the Members of the European Parliament’s (MEP) collective wariness for the future of EU citizens in Britain, as well as British citizens in EU member states.
The European Parliament has all EU citizens’ best interests at heart, as the resolution says, both “before and after the UK leaves the EU.” The complications begin when looking at who that phrase affects in the first place: EU citizens living in the EU27 and EU citizens living in the UK are the obvious ones, but what about the 1.2 million Brits living in other EU countries? What about the people of Northern Ireland, who are all entitled to Irish and by extent, EU citizenship, under the Good Friday agreement? This is where the water gets muddled. The British government has also not clarified whether the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), their all-hailed solution for EU citizens in the UK to retain their rights, applies to citizens of Northern Ireland who have not sought UK citizenship under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The resolution expressed apprehension regarding the high proportion of applicants who have only been accorded pre-settled status under the Scheme; these people are at risk of losing their status before they qualify for settled status, or may not re-apply to get that settled status when the time comes. The resolution therefore urges the UK to reconsider their approach and opt for a declaratory scheme instead, an approach which our Managing Director previously endorsed.
It then goes on to state its “grave concern” at conflicting announcement made in relation to EU citizens in the UK who fail to meet the deadline for EUSS applications, and the treatment of late applications under the Scheme. Last year, UK Home Office minister Brandon Lewis suggested that people who had not applied to formalise their status by the cut-off date of 30 June 2021 could “theoretically” be deported.
Other concerns highlighted include the lack of physical documentation proving EU citizens right under the EUSS, and the potential discrimination that can flow from it. It recommends providing EU citizens with some type of physical evidence of their legal right to be in the UK by the end of the transition period to avoid this. Unfortunately, as our Managing Director explains in The Independent, this discrimination is already occurring. The resolution also mentions the UK’s plans for an Independent Monitoring Authority (IMA) which under the withdrawal deal is meant to monitor arrangements, questioning how fully independent of a watchdog this authority will really be. These concerns resonate with immigration lawyers and other professionals in the sector; no real details of how the IMA will operate have been released, and until the Ministry of Justice provides more details as to the construction and powers of the IMA, it is something that will need to be closely scrutinised as the situation develops and more details are released.
The EU’s approach to the post-Brexit transition seems to be one of cooperation and collaboration, but it is not without its limits. The Parliament therefore stated that the level of free movement granted to EU citizens after Brexit will be a factor in deciding the “degree of future cooperation in other areas.” As Ursula von Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in her speech at the London School of Economics (LSE) last week, the last few years have been difficult and divisive. What people need, and what they want, is certainty about their lives and their future, and certainty about the future of their loved ones. It is of paramount importance that in the next round of transitional negotiations, the British government lives up to those expectations.
Just shy of 2.6 million applications for status under the EU Settlement Scheme have been received since its launch in January 2019. That is what the latest set of statistics published by the Home Office, state.
October 2019 saw the highest number of applications per month since the EU Settlement Scheme was introduced: over half a million applications were submitted, with a looming possibility of Brexit day pushing people to action. The slightly overwhelming flow of applications has led to a backlog in processing times: more than 20% of applications were still being considered a month after having been received.
As more people apply, the strengths and weaknesses of the Scheme are becoming increasingly apparent.
Preliminarily, statistical estimates are unlikely to be accurate because it is simply not known how many EU nationals live in the UK. Free movement law has allowed EEA nationals to enter and leave the country without it being recorded for decades. As such, any estimates as to how many people should apply are only just that – estimates, which are hard to back up with hard evidence.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) have attempted to do some work on this, but as the Scheme solidifies and application numbers increase, we can see that their published estimates are plainly wrong. Kuba Jablonowski, a Political Geography lecturer and researcher at Exeter University, dug into the numbers.
One major drawback of the ONS statistics is that some applications under the Scheme are counted towards the total number of applications despite coming from applicants who already have status under the Scheme. These are people who were granted or refused status, and then, for whatever reason, re-apply. The Home Office has confirmed that it counts repeat applications under the EU Settlement Scheme as new applications:
“It’s right that every application is counted because each application has a separate outcome. However, our initial analysis of internal figures suggest that repeat applications currently represent less than 0.5% of applications.”
0.5% out of 2.6 million applications may not sound that significant, but it means that thousands of cases are counted twice, distorting the statistics. Additionally, if the Home Office continues to use the same statistical methods, the discrepancy between the real number of applicants and the published numbers will only increase as many applicants who were initially granted pre-settled status will have to apply again to receive settled status, thus all becoming “double applicants.” Moreover, those who get a status in the crown dependencies, and also get a status under the Home Office scheme, are counted in the Home Office numbers. In reality, these should be ignored for the purposes of calculating the number of missing applicants.
Another red flag is the low number of applicants from the age group 65 or older. According to the statistics, only 2% of the total applications come from people aged over 65, although they make up a higher percentage of the EEA population in the UK. Reasons for this include the technology barrier, as well as the limited reach of government marketing and campaigning of the Scheme to secluded and isolated communities.
The discrepancy between expected/estimated applications and true applications is confirmed in the monthly statistics from October 2019. Following the ONS estimates, by October 2019, 132-148% of Portuguese nationals, 105-121% of Bulgarians, 93-102% of Italians, 90-101% of Spaniards and 92-99% of Romanians applied under the Scheme. Based on these numbers, more people from these countries have applied than the ONS even estimate are in the country – and there is another year of the transitional period to go, in which more applications are anticipated.
Clearly, there is little oversight on how well the Settlement Scheme is taking off. We do not know how many people have applied today – let alone how many people are supposed to apply by the cut-off date of 31 December 2020. Either the estimated number of EU nationals in the UK is inaccurate, or the double applications under the scheme have troubled the numbers – or both.