Media Release

EU settlement scheme shows Brexit Britain accepts liberal immigration policies

The “quiet success” of Britain’s settlement scheme for EU citizens shows the country is content to accept a liberal approach to immigration after Brexit, a think-tank says today.

The Social Market Foundation said that the EU Settled Status scheme – which has seen more than 5 million EU nationals apply for residency rights to permanently stay in the UK after Brexit – is proof that Britain’s immigration debate has changed hugely since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Concerns about EU migration helped give Leave a majority in that referendum, but the post-Brexit rules for EU migration could actually allow more EU nationals already in the UK to settle in the UK than would have been permitted under Freedom of Movement rules, the SMF said.

In an essay marking the application deadline for the EUSS, SMF Senior Fellow Jonathan Thomas also​​​​​ said that the Government’s moves to liberalise other parts of the immigration system have gone largely unnoticed and unopposed. That reflects a significant shift in political and public attitudes to immigration issues, he said.

Under the EUSS, any EU national who can show they have lived in the U.K. for at least five years is eligible to settle here. Under Freedom of Movement rules, EU nationals had to demonstrate a history of work or otherwise prove self sufficiency in the UK to claim permanent residency.

There are EU citizens in the UK who would not have been able to satisfy the evidential burden to successfully prove their right to stay in the UK permanently under the EU freedom of movement rules, but who will be able to gain settled status to permanently stay in the UK under the EUSS, Thomas writes.

In total, around 5.3 million people have applied for EUSS. The Home Office had predicted a total in the range of 3.5 million to 4.1 million.

Such numbers disprove claims that the Brexit vote unleashed widespread xenophobia that would drive EU nationals away from Britain, Thomas concludes. “Happily, this is not a story of a group that is being hounded out of the country or which feels like it is under pressure to leave,” he writes.

And despite the numbers involved, the issue of EU migration has barely featured in political debate or public opinion in recent months. Ipsos MORI polling shows that less than 10% of voters now rank immigration as one of the most important issues facing the country, down from a peak of 56% in 2015.

Thomas writes:

“There has been essentially no comment from those who voted to leave the EU on the more generous aspects of the EUSS, no pushback at all on the terms of the EUSS offered to EU citizens. Indeed, there seems to have been almost complete disinterest from this section of society in the terms of the EUSS.” 

“Given the fractiousness of the Brexit vote and process in the UK, and the part that the issue of immigration played in that, that seems a remarkable thing little remarked on. 

“It is surely remarkable that a country that in 2016 voted to leave the EU in part over EU migration is now offering permanent residency to more than 5 million EU nationals, some of whom were not entitled to permanently stay here before that vote. And even more remarkable that this fact is scarcely discussed.” 

He concludes that since the Brexit vote, Britain has become much more relaxed about immigration, allowing the Government to implement a relatively liberal approach to EU citizens in the UK without public resistance.

“After all the convulsions of the EU Referendum and the Brexit process, it seems that the UK has loudly taken back control to rather quietly set out a sensible, reasonably liberal, middle way compromise on immigration which the majority of this country can feel comfortable with, and, perhaps most importantly, not spend its whole time talking about.”


  • The essay, “The EU Settlement Scheme: the greatest story never told?”, is authored by Jonathan Thomas, Senior Fellow at the Social Market Foundation, and published today at



  • For interview requests and other media enquiries, please contact Linus Pardoe, SMF Impact Officer – – 07402 576995


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