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Just how level do we want the Brexit playing field to be?


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Seasoned Brexit watchers will be familiar by now with the trope that there is a “need for a level playing field”. Coined by the EU out of concern that the UK may turn itself into a tax haven, the phrase has now been appropriated by Brexiteers in the government. Cabinet members are demanding that, post-Brexit, EU nationals should not be given preferential treatment when it comes to admission to the UK.

This version of a “level playing field” means that EU nationals would be subject to the same immigration restrictions as non-EU nationals when visiting, working or setting up a business in the UK.

Whatever your view on Brexit, this proposal requires close consideration. It would have wide-ranging ramifications not just for  EU nationals coming to the UK and the employers who want them, but also for British nationals travelling to the continent.

If we are going to apply a level playing field between EU and third country nationals after Brexit, then it is probable that European countries will apply similar restrictions to UK nationals travelling to the continent. The preferential treatment we currently enjoy would evaporate.

Jobseekers not wanted: the impact of turning away EU workers

The advantage of EU free movement law is that it gives workers an initial right of residence, enabling them to establish themselves and find work in any industry they wish.

If we are to apply a level playing field, then the options for EU citizens entering the UK and then being able to find work would be limited. The Immigration Rules have few categories which allow this.

The Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa and UK Ancestry visa would be the obvious exceptions, but both are restricted to nationals of designated countries. Successive governments have crafted the Immigration Rules to ensure only those with job offers can enter the UK, forcing people who want to work here and the British businesses  who want to employ them into the system of sponsorship and Tier 2 of the Points Based System.

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A level playing field in its truest form would mean that EU nationals wanting to work in the UK would have to have a job offer that meets the stringent skill and salary levels that are a feature of Tier 2. They would be subject to the cap on the number of applicants who can enter through this visa route — people are already being turned away — and be required to establish that they can speak English. An employer would also have to meet the added hurdle of demonstrating that there is no one within the settled workforce who can do the role in question.

All this would be disastrous for employers requiring low-skilled, short-term workers who have historically relied on the EU workers as a source of labour. Our clients within the retail and hospitality industries are desperately concerned that this approach will prevent them getting the workers they need. The roles they need to fill are often menial, involving long unsociable hours which migrants, who are likely to have a transient lifestyle, are more willing to do.

Incentivising local workers to take these roles is possible, but businesses say that it will take time, being dependent on the education and vocational training systems encouraging careers in these areas.

This is not something that can be done overnight.

And it has consequences. We should expect a similar welcome to UK nationals seeking work on the continent. British nationals will have to meet the criteria for each European domestic immigration system that they wish to work in.

Application forms for business trips or mini-breaks in Europe

Today visiting Europe is easy. We present a British passport at the border of a country which is part of the European Economic Area and are given an automatic right of admission. We can then travel freely within the 26 countries in the Schengen zone. Putting European nationals on an equal footing to non-Europeans would end unrestricted access to the UK: we should expect similar treatment on the continent.

The worst case scenario would be British citizens being designated as “visa nationals”: in effect becoming one of the countries whose citizens need a visa for even short trips. This outcome would be unlikely as the EU offers preferential treatment to other wealthy countries. But there are potential complications falling short of a full-blown visa requirement.

A widely discussed idea is to add UK nationals after Brexit to the proposed European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS). This will be a visa waiver programme similar to the US ESTA. It should be going live in 2020 and will require all non-visa nationals travelling to the Schengen area to apply online for authorisation before they travel. A fee will be payable and the system will check personal, health and security details.

If UK nationals are added to this system, free and unhindered entry to Europe will be at an end. The system will prevent travel for those with criminal convictions and is likely to require business visitors to establish they have a valid reason for travel to the continent.

This will not make life easy for the approximately 45,000 UK residents who work in Europe on short-term contracts. Currently, free movement and cheap air fare allow workers to come and go as needed without having to worry about visa permission. Whether British nationals are ultimately subject to a visit visa regime or an “apply before you go” waiver programme post-Brexit, it will be difficult for short term workers to ply their trade in Europe without a work permit if the usual prohibition on paid work as a visitor applies.

The end result would be that freelancing in Europe could become a thing of the past.

No more place in the sun for retirees

British nationals wanting to retire to the continent have been ably assisted by EU law, which allows free movement for individuals who can demonstrate that they are self sufficient and do not require financial assistance from the state. The bar for “self sufficiency” is low, as a person need only show that they have an income higher than the income support threshold for UK nationals. This has made it easy for British nationals to retire on modest pensions in Europe.

There is not an equivalent provision which allows non-EU nationals to retire in the UK. The wealthiest retirees can use the Tier 1 investor visa route if they have £2 million in the bank ready for investment. Those with family connections could throw caution to the wind and attempt an application under the notoriously difficult adult dependant relative rules.

With such limited options for their citizens, European countries are highly unlikely to continue their hospitality to British retirees after we exit the EU. Retirement plans to the Costa Brava will have to be hastily reconsidered.

In truth, the playing field will never be level when we are one country negotiating with a bloc of 27 nations. Any restrictions we apply to EU nationals after Brexit will be mirrored in the domestic immigration systems across the European Union as visa policy is harmonised across its members.

Inevitably, this will be more detrimental to us than our neighbours. The government would do well to drop the clichés and adopt a degree of pragmatism in the face of this reality during the next crucial stage of negotiations.


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