May plans curbs on new EU migrants as soon as Article 50 is triggered
Theresa May is expected to announce the end of free movement for new EU migrants on the same day that she formally starts Brexit negotiations next month.
The UK prime minister is planning to say that EU citizens who travel to Britain after she triggers Article 50 will no longer have the automatic right to stay in the UK permanently. They will be subject to migration curbs to be introduced after Britain leaves the EU, which could include a new visa regime and restricted access to benefits.
The announcement means that the "cut-off date" for EU migrants is likely to be around March 15, once the government's Article 50 Bill has gone through parliament. Mrs May is also understood to have decided that EU migrants who have arrived in the UK before the "cut-off date" will have their rights protected as long as British citizens living elsewhere in Europe are granted the same assurance.
It is understood the prime minister will appeal to other EU nations to reach a quick deal on the issue so it can be removed from Brexit negotiations as soon as possible.
This is likely to put her in conflict with the EU, which has been pushing for Mrs May to delay the cut-off date until 2019. However, ministers have raised concerns that waiting until the end of negotiations will lead to a huge surge in the number of EU migrants coming to the UK before Brexit.
"We have had some suggestion that the European Commission might attempt to force us to protect everyone who arrives up to the moment of departure," a government source said. "We could end up with half of Romania and Bulgaria coming here if we wait that long."
Iain Duncan Smith, a leading Eurosceptic conservative MP, said that the announcement would show that Mrs May was taking control of Britain's borders while giving clarity to the 3.6 million EU migrants already living in the UK.
He said: "Theresa understands that if you want to take control you have to command the high ground. She will be giving clarity by setting a clear deadline while the European Union looks increasingly muddled and mean-spirited".
The government had also considered suggestions that the cut-off date should be set for the referendum date in June last year. However, government lawyers advised that such an approach would be illegal.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, said yesterday that after Britain leaves the European Union "we will be ending free movement as we know it".
She is examining plans to give new arrivals who get jobs in key sectors of the economy multi-year visas while limiting access to benefits.
Under one proposal, migrants would be given five-year working visas but barred from claiming in-work benefits while they are in the UK. She confirmed that the Home Office is "working on a range of options" but suggested that the final system will only be decided after "two years of negotiations and preparation".
David Davis, the secretary of state for leaving the European Union, has previously said that Britain will not suddenly shut the door on workers coming from the EU.