Brexit: What Will Happen to EU Workers in the UK?

Social Policy

 The clock is ticking for the UK to reach a deal with the European Union before Brexit will be effective on the 29th of March 2019. If no withdrawal agreement is reached, the UK will have to deal with the consequences of leaving the EU immediately, rather than having a 21-month transition period. Until now, two EU Summits in the past two months have failed to make progress on a Brexit deal, giving Brussels and London limited time to reach an agreement before the UK’s scheduled departure next March. The main sticking point remains a standoff over how to construct a so-called «backstop», a legal guarantee to prevent the need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, if the UK and EU fail to agree on a future trade relationship. Furthermore, negotiations have yet to begin over the so-called political declaration that will accompany the formal withdrawal treaty.

The EU is pressing ahead with plans for a no-deal Brexit, amid uncertainty about the time when high-level negotiations will resume. While British Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping to cut a deal in time for an emergency Brexit summit which could be held in mid-November. On the one hand, with a no deal or a bad deal for London there will be many problems for the British government. On the other hand, an unclear situation could show potential threats also for the EU, and namely for its citizens working abroad. «Brexit could force firms to check whether its EU workers have the right to stay and work in Great Britain», British Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes declared at the end of October as she also admitted it would be an «almost impossible» job for employers to know which EU citizens of their staff can remain in the country after the UK’s exit.

The British government hopes that the estimated 3,5 million EU citizens in United Kingdom will apply for the «settled status», so that they can continue to live and work in the UK. This status will give EU citizens who have spent five years in the UK the same rights as the British ones, including benefits, education, pensions and healthcare. But it will not happen before Britain leaves the EU on the 29th of March.

Under the British government settlement scheme, the EU citizens who have been in the UK for five years by the end of 2020 can apply for «settled status», meaning they are free to go on living and working in the UK indefinitely. Those who have arrived by the 31st of December 2020 but do not have five years’ residence can seek to stay until they have reached this period, then apply for settled status. EU citizens who arrive in the UK after the official exit date in March, will face no new limits on living and working in the country but will be required to register if they intend to stay for longer than three months.

The settlement scheme is currently being trialled and will be fully operational next year. According to London media, the total number of applications could be more than 3,5 million. Minister Nokes asserted that «it is going to be an enormous challenge for both employers and EU citizens who do have the right to work to make sure we get them through the scheme as efficiently as we possibly can».

The British government insists stating that the EU free movement will end in March. However, in practice, EU nationals will still be able to come and work in the UK, until the end of the planned 21-month transition period. The only difference is that they will have to register with the authorities. But Minister Nokes suggested that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, where there would not be a transition period, new immigration controls – including employer checks of immigration status – will apply to EU citizens next year. The London Ministry then delivered a statement contradicting Nokes position: «Employers already need to carry out right to work checks on EU citizens, as they do with all prospective employees. That will not change next March in the event we leave the EU without a deal. EU citizens will continue to be able to evidence their right to work by showing a passport or national identity card. Employers will not be expected to differentiate between resident EU citizens and those arriving after exit. The government will publish a white paper later this year on the future of immigration after Brexit, when freedom of movement will end», he said.

In the next few days a more positive trend was registered over a possible deal. At the end of October, UK negotiator Dominic Raab announced that a deal on the divorce will be finalised by the 21st of November. And «The Times» reported that the two sides have agreed to a deal that would give UK financial services companies access to EU markets even after Brexit. But for the moment there still is no deal, and even if for the British Prime Minister Theresa May an agreement on financial services could make life easier, whether it would pass the Parliament scrutiny – where she doesn’t have a majority – remains to be seen.

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