Mobile Britons: will Brexit restrict expats?

Free movement of people is a cornerstone of the EU project and, in a week where Brexit wrangling has reached fever pitch, it is a point of contention that stirs emotions – as it has for any years. More often than not, debate focuses on the EU nationals who reside in Britain. Much less attention has been given to British expats who have settled in EU or regularly move around member countries.

We’ve heard a great deal about so many aspects of Brexit that will impact the consumer sectors – from tariffs and customs checks to stockpiling and delays at ports. There has been very little public debate about global mobility post-Brexit.

However, the success of companies with pan-European operations and commercial contracts often hinges on the ability of employees to move around Europe freely. Following Brexit, this free movement is not guaranteed.

So, what happens to Britons if the UK reaches the March 29th deadline without a deal? No-one is sure yet. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty about this, and as we’ve seen so far, when it comes to Brexit, there are no guarantees.

But one thing is clear, if cross-border firms want to compete globally they need access to world class talent – regardless of where it comes from.

The nature of our work at The MBS Group sees us speaking regularly with HR directors and candidates unsettled by the lack of clarity. Before Brexit, our candidate’s cross-border mobility wasn’t an issue. Until the UK Government provides clarity we, alongside our clients, will have to treat each candidate’s mobility as it comes. There are 69 days left until 29th March, and the status of those candidates remains unclear.

For some executives, the matter of compensation is particularly of interest. Given the current volatility of the exchange rate, some workers will no doubt be concerned that their net take home pay has significantly dropped overnight.

Pay aside, there will be implications for so many other elements of an expat’s package – healthcare, schooling and insurance. They might even need extra layers of pension and healthcare protection.

There are several ways that employers themselves will be impacted. Those in the most exposed sectors may need to take a hard look at their approach to recruitment, retention, and work patterns to overcome the mobility issues their people might face.

For cross-border companies, workforce planning is vital, whatever the outcome of the EU negotiations. That might include evaluating operating models to reassess the expertise required to sustain them.

We might find that some companies are reluctant to employ Britons wrapped up in bureaucracy, who can’t compete with their EU counterparts, who are free to move between member countries with ease.

Before it was rejected, Britain and the EU had made headway on a withdrawal agreement that would have guaranteed the rights for EU/EEA nationals currently living and working in the UK, as well as vice versa. But even now, with less than ten weeks to go, the movement rights for UK citizens living and moving around the EU are yet to be settled.

There is little detail from the UK Government on what system it wants to see for replacing free movement. Currently wrapped up in the intricacies of exiting the Union, responsibility has largely been passed on.

For Britons residing in member states, a priority will be establishing some certainty, but the rules – including registration deadlines for paperwork – vary from country to country. If their EU rights are stripped from them, British expats might have to settle for life as third country nationals.

The EU has urged governments to be generous in protecting basic rights for Britons by granting temporary residence permits while their long-term status is resolved.

In Germany, authorities have already opened online registration for British nationals. In France, the Government has been granted powers to issue decrees to protect Britons living and working there – and even grant them more favourable status than those from third countries, as long as the UK acts in a similar fashion.

The Dutch have told Britons they will be able to stay in the event of a cliff-edge Brexit, and the Italians have promised emergency legislation to exempt Britons from normal immigration laws if the UK crashes out of the EU. In Luxembourg, any British national currently living here can continue to do so.

Two more European Union states, Poland and the Czech Republic, are preparing emergency laws to allow Britons to stay to work in their countries legally in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, the agreement with the Czech Republic is only effective if the UK reciprocates and guarantees the rights of the 40,000 Czech citizens living in Britain.

The standing of Britons becomes more complicated when their lives intersect with several EU countries. These issues are still to be agreed upon between the UK and the EU and are outside the scope of any bilateral arrangement. In the absence of a divorce deal, some things simply haven’t been agreed yet.

As a member of the EFTA, a citizens’ rights deal agreed in December is said to “broadly” protect the mobility of the 2,600 British cross-border workers who commute into Switzerland from neighbouring countries. Thankfully, the agreement will apply even if the UK crashes out without a deal.

If a deal isn’t reached before 29th March, the impact on mobility will be significant. Conventional agreements which provide social security won’t function in the same way or be nearly as comprehensive.

Either way, time is rapidly running out to establish concrete guidelines for the mobility statuses of Britons in the European Union, which will have a significant impact on multinational companies and the availability of global talent. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup