British Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis insists freedom of movement between the UK and Europe will end when the country leaves the European Union in March 2019.
Lewis said a new immigration system would be introduced from the spring of 2019 and that the government would aim to reduce immigration to “sustainable levels.”
Lewis’ comments come on the day the British government commissioned a report into the costs and benefits of EU migrants, which is expected to be published in September – just six months before Brexit is due to take place.
“Free movement of labor ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019. I’ll be very clear about that,” Lewis told BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Thursday.
“Obviously, there’s a period of negotiation we’re going through with the European Union at the moment. But we’re very clear that free movement ends. It’s part of the four key principles of the European Union. When we leave, it ends,” Lewis said.
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Lewis’ comments add to the growing confusion surrounding the British government’s position on freedom of movement.
Last week, Environment Secretary and prominent Brexit supporter Michael Gove said the cabinet was committed to a transition period after Brexit that would take a “pragmatic approach” to free movement.
And on Thursday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd also appeared to suggest that the government’s stance on free movement had softened, in an article she wrote for the Financial Times
“Put simply, the UK must remain a hub for international talent,” she wrote, while warning there would be no “cliff-edge” for EU nationals or businesses.
“We must keep attracting the brightest and best migrants from around the world. And we must implement a new immigration system after we leave the EU that gives us control and works in all of our interests.”
In a letter to the Migration Advisory Committee, which has been asked to produce the report into the impact leaving the EU will have on the UK labor market, Rudd said the government does “not envisage moving to that future system in a single step when we leave the EU.”
She added that the government wanted to adopt a “well understood process which moves gradually from the free movement regime to a new set of arrangements.”
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There are more than three million EU nationals living in the UK, while some 1.2 million UK citizens live in other EU states.
Both the British government and the EU have said that finding a reciprocal deal for their citizens remains a priority in the Brexit negotiations.