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Migrate Another Day: Brexit and the Migration Process

By 3p Contributor


By Mihai Sebe, PhD

Brexit proved once more that emotions have their role in politics. Thus the force of populist messages such as “take back control of our borders” appeal to human nature rather than rational economic benefit. For me, a Romanian political scientist, it is a rare opportunity to see history in the making.

Why migration as a Brexit topic?

If the economic fallout was almost instant, the political ramifications proved equally fast-moving. What will take far more time to sort out is what Brexit means for migration policies both in the European Union and United Kingdom. The divorce negotiations seem to be messy, and immigration will be one of the challenging issues to overcome. What is at stake?

The British Leave vote was highly polarized. The idea to limit immigration gained a lot of appeal, and the key signal to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see is that one: Immigration must be better controlled.

The short-run problems

In the short run, the most pressing question is that of the rights of EU nationals living in the U.K., both right now and once the formal withdrawal from the Union occurs. This process could take two years to complete from the moment when the government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

This question generates in turn two subsequent questions:

  1. If the U.K. does not accept the principle of people’s free movement as a price to pay in order to gain free access to the single market, is the EU willing to offer it comprehensive access to the single market?

  2. How would the U.K. compete with the EU, if the U.K. restricts the free movement of persons? Would the British people accept an immigration policy based on a liberal/conservative view?

Who control what borders?

Another complicated issue is the border question. Who will control what? What to do with the issue of Calais refugees, for instance?

The long-run problems

In the long run, the most pressing questions concern:

  1. The role of migration in any EU negotiations

  2. How would the British political elites reach a nationwide consensus on migration policies?

What about Romania?

For Romania, Brexit is less of an opportunity and more of a crisis, especially in the short- and medium-term. Yet the official messages are reassuring. For instance, the Romanian president met to discuss Brexit on June 24 with his country's prime minister, the leaders of the political parties and the head of the National Bank of Romania.  A series of comforting public messages emerged from this meeting:

  • Brexit is predicted to have a low impact for the Romanian economy

  • The threat to the national currency is small and manageable

  • All the political parties are in favor of the European Union, although the situation is far from being very comfortable.

Local political landscape

Romania, an EU member state, is extremely interested in the way the withdrawal negotiations will proceed. The mainstream political parties are very sensitive in regards to their fate as we are having national parliamentarian elections this year. Currently Romania has a technocratic government following the 2015 protests, and the government's maneuver space is often limited by the lack of a strong political endorsement.

Walking across the red line

For Romania, the most pressing concern at this moment is the issue of the Romanians who work in the U.K.


Political statements thus far have repeatedly underlined the principle of people’s freedom of movement and securing the rights of Romanian and other EU workers in the U.K. This red line has a wide political support and must be reaffirmed in any Brexit negotiations.

However, the support may vary in accordance with the replies to a series of questions:

  1. What is the status of EU nationals inside the U.K. at the moment of the referendum?

  2. The negotiations will formally last two years, and in this time the U.K. must respect its EU obligations. If this is the case, what will happen with EU nationals arriving in the U.K. in this time framework? Would they also have a special status? How would U.K. authorities react if faced with an EU intra-migration spike?

At the same time, there is a fine line that we should keep in our relation with the U.K. given Romania’s Strategic Partnership with the U.K. U.K. is and must remain one of our strongest allies in the security area given our common vision on dangers and the special relationship with the United States. We have to find a balance between the Brexit negotiations and our strategic relationship with the U.K.

What about the future?

However, Romania must take advantage of the current situation and reposition itself as a key actor in the incoming transformation process. We need to have constructive propositions and try not to be isolated in the future.

* The first draft of this paper was published in the special edition "BREXIT Dossier" of the EIR Newsletter no. 80, July 2016.

For more on Brexit please also read Die another day. Brexit and its impact upon the European Union. A view from Romania, Institute of European Democrats, Brussels, July 2016.

Mihai Sebe is an expert in European Affairs and Romanian Politics, European Institute of Romania. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Sciences in French Language and in Law he has obtained a PhD in Political Sciences at the University of Bucharest. His main areas of interest are political sciences, international relations, contemporary history of Europe and Romania, the history of the European idea as well as public law and the area of ethics and corporate social responsibility. On a personal note he is also active in the European organization Young Democrats for Europe.

Follow Mihai Sebe @MihaiSebe83 

Image credit: Flickr/Garon S

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