While the past few months since the historic Brexit vote has seen considerable focus on how Brexit will affect the British expats, or anyone looking at migrating to the UK in the future, there has not been enough consideration of those expats from the EU who are already based in the UK. There is overwhelming uncertainty as to what will happen to those already living and working in the UK.
While, under existing EU rules, only those who have lived continuously in an existing member state for at least five years have an automatic right to reside at the time an exit is finalised, Prime Minister Theresa May has not revealed any information regarding what will happen to those who have resided in the UK for less than these five years. For businesses trying to plan for the coming months, this is less than ideal.
Should Brexit be finalised in early 2019, more than 80% of the 3.55 million EU citizens currently residing in the UK would meet the five-year benchmark, but nearly 600,000 might not. Given that this is EU law, the UK government would not be able to overturn it until they have formally left. These residency conditions could also prove instrumental in negotiations with other countries in the future. Certain EU countries with a large number of citizens calling the UK their home will have a keen interest in the UK’s future residency rules, and could easily use them as leverage in negotiations over trade or security. They could also be used to support the rights of other British nationals who currently live in EU countries. Yet, the government remains mute on their plans.
While sending EU citizens back might be politically attractive, it remains impractical. Many businesses depend on the work of EU migrants at all levels, private or public sector. With EU citizens not required to sign up to any database as they arrive in the UK, and severe budget cuts to the Home Office, tracing and expelling every migrant would also be a long and tedious process, one estimated to take a staggering 140 years. It may then be that most businesses do not lose their EU workforce, or it may be that new regulations and administration is introduced to allow them to remain.
Many businesses in the UK will already find their prospective EU workforce dwindling before Brexit is even finalised. Combined with the drop of value of the pound and the psychological impact of Brexit on making EU citizens feel less welcome, the number of EU migrants arriving in the UK is expected to fall dramatically. Global Mobility departments will need to think creatively of how to entice EU nationals to work in the UK and to continue to strengthen ties between the UK and the EU even before the Brexit finalisation.
Uncertain times remain, that is for sure. The British public overwhelmingly want May to guarantee the rights of the EU citizens currently living in the UK, but pinning future plans on government polls has already been proved as a false economy. Global mobility departments must be prepared for any scenario, whether May guarantees the rights of EU citizens already residing in the UK, or decides to remove them.