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The pointless EU registration scheme shows how unserious the Tories are about Brexit

A few weeks ago, Theresa May suddenly declared that EU citizens migrating to Britain after Brexit, during the two-year transition period, can’t expect to have the same rights as those already here. That was something of a surprise, since the government has already agreed that EU law – which, of course, includes freedom of movement – will apply in full through the transition.

That was beside the point for May’s announcement, whose purpose was to get sympathetic headlines in the Brexit-supporting press. It succeeded at that, even getting written up in the Daily Mail as a promise to ‘end free movement’. But it’s not: it’s an entirely futile symbolic gesture, and one that’s sucking government resources away from properly preparing for the parts of Brexit that actually matter.

The new system isn’t going to involve visa requirements for EU nationals, because it can’t under European law. Instead it will consist of a series of more modest measures, many of which are already used in most other EU countries. European migrants will need to register their presence if they stay for more than a few months; they may need residence permits to rent homes, and work permits to take up employment, but the government will simply be obliged to grant them in almost all cases. What there certainly won’t be is stricter border controls or any measures to prevent EU citizens working in Britain. We don’t really know anything about the details of this new registration scheme, because the government hasn’t said much about it. What we do know is that almost nobody thinks it’s a good idea.

On Monday, the Times reported that civil servants in the Home Office warned that they "would struggle" to create the prime minister’s desired new registration system for EU citizens by Brexit day, and that she'd overruled them. Today, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is publishing a report on the government's progress on delivering changes to the immigration system, and they too are scathing about the prospects for completing the new scheme in time.

None of this would matter that much, except that it’s drawing Home Office effort away from preparing a different registration scheme – for EU citizens currently living in the UK – which is much more important. That system, allowing streamlined applications for a new ‘settled status’ for current residents, is meant to come online later this year - currently Europeans are in a legal limbo that makes it risky to leave the country. The government needs this system. In the first-stage agreement with the EU struck last December, it agreed to protect the EU law rights of citizens already settled here, so it needs to know who those people are.

But progress is apparently shambolic. The committee report expresses doubts about whether enough new staff are being recruited. (There is even dispute about how many actually have been recruited so far.) It criticises the visa agency’s track record and concludes that the Home Office doesn’t have “sufficient staff and systems” and is only “planning moderate adjustments for an immense bureaucratic challenge.”

There is practically no prospect of delivering this important piece of Brexit machinery while effort is being spent on the new scheme for transition period arrivals. And that effort is entirely wasted. The registration scheme won’t limit immigration from the EU, or do anything other than make life slightly more annoying for Europeans in the UK. The payoff is the symbolic benefit of something actually changing on the day of Brexit, and for Theresa May that seems good enough. (Actually it’s pretty worthless on that score, too, since everything in this scheme would be possible without leaving the EU.) To rub salt in the wound, this pointless new system will in all likelihood become completely redundant after the transition period, when EU citizens will start to need actual visas rather than just rubber-stamp permits.

Meanwhile, the immigration white paper that was originally meant to be published last autumn seems to have been delayed indefinitely. The immigration bill, once expected early this year, is receding further and further into the distance. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that nobody in the government really cares about immigration policy beyond cynical politicking. They want the benefits of sounding tough, and to get them they’ll make as much costly noise as necessary, ignoring the work that actually needs doing.