The UK’s planned exit from the European Union is fast approaching, and a new deal over the terms of that exit faces an uncertain future in the UK parliament. Whatever happens, there will be talent implications for employers and HR leaders in the UK and Europe. Below is our broad look at the background of the process and terms of the latest proposed deal, and what the potential consequences could be — viewing several key issues through the lens of HR, including immigration, employment law, and the risks of a no-deal Brexit.
- The UK will formally exit the European Union on March 29, 2019, marking the deadline for UK and EU negotiators to reach a deal on an orderly Brexit transition. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has reached a draft agreement with the EU that would provide for a 21-month transition period, after which the UK would be able to control immigration from the EU, while backstop measures would allow the UK to remain in the EU customs union and enable a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if a final trade deal is not reached by December 2020. The transition period could be extended once, into 2022, if the UK and EU agree to do so.
- A scheduled Parliament vote on the deal with the EU was delayed on December 10 after the May government realized the agreement would most likely be rejected. May then survived a confidence vote two days later, and plans to continue lobbying for the deal, which will not be scheduled for another vote in Parliament until sometime in January.
- May’s deal, as drafted, would preserve the free movement of labor between the UK and other EU countries for the duration of the transition period, while any EU citizens living in the UK before the end of that period would have a right to stay, but would have to apply for residency documentation. Afterward, EU citizens would no longer have special privileges in immigrating to the UK. May has proposed a skills-based system for admitting immigrants after Brexit, but some business leaders and the National Health Service fear this system will leave them short-staffed in roles that would not qualify as high-skill under May’s scheme but for which native talent is in short supply.
- The UK government has pledged to uphold employment laws based on EU regulations after Brexit, but some of these laws may be partly amended to be more flexible for employers or to reduce their liabilities. Unions, however, fear that these protections may be weakened substantially.
- If there is no deal by the March 29 deadline, the UK will face a “messy” exit from the EU—likely causing severe economic disruptions. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK would revert to trading with Europe under World Trade Organization guidelines, reintroducing customs and border controls. A no-deal Brexit can be expected to hurt the pound and cause instability in the British financial sector, which could spread to continental Europe and the rest of the world.
- In a no-deal scenario, the government has promised that EU citizens’ immigration status would not change before 2021, but it remains unclear what employers will have to do to ensure that their European employees are able to continue living and working in the UK. Many businesses have put contingency plans into action to protect against the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, but most HR managers in the UK are underprepared for this scenario. In any case, Brexit is expected to result in a labor supply shock and make it more challenging for UK employers to fill job vacancies.
On June 23, 2016, citizens of the UK narrowly voted to withdraw their country from the European Union. The “Brexit” referendum sent a shockwave through the British, European, and global economies, and prompted concern and uncertainty at many organizations in the UK and abroad.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who came to power shortly after the referendum in 2016, has worked to cut a deal with Brussels that preserves the UK’s strong trade ties with the EU, but has also stressed that no deal is better than a bad deal as far as her government is concerned. UK and EU negotiators deadlocked over several key points where London and Brussels are at cross-purposes, and uncertainty over whether and how these obstacles will be overcome has been a major source of anxiety for UK businesses over the past two years.
Chief among these issues are immigration and the free movement of people between the UK and the rest of the EU. May has stressed the need for the UK to “take back control” of its borders, even if it meant losing access to the EU’s single market. Free movement of people is one of the “four freedoms” underpinning that single market; the UK wants to preserve free movement of goods, services, and capital, while regaining the right to restrict immigration from the EU. For its part, Brussels has resisted creating new forms of special treatment for the UK that would make Brexit easier, partly to discourage other EU countries from pursuing exits of their own. Another, related area of disagreement is the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which forms the UK’s only land border with another EU country. Many businesses on the island of Ireland have supply chains that cross that border every day and employees living on both sides of it; creating a hard border with customs and immigration controls would be costly and complicated for these organizations.
The deadline for reaching an agreement is March 29, 2019. If no agreement is reached, the UK will “crash out” of the EU and trade with the bloc under World Trade Organization guidelines. May announced on November 25 that her Brexit negotiators and their counterparts in Brussels had reached a draft agreement that would solve some of these challenges.
A vote on the deal in the UK Parliament had been scheduled for December 11, but May called it off one day before when it was clear that the deal was going to be rejected. Many MPs opposed the agreement, claiming the proposed Brexit is too hard or not hard enough, or because they believe the country should hold another referendum on the question before proceeding.
Prime Minister May said on December 10 that she would ask the EU for new “reassurances” on the deal, and in particular the backstop plan for the Northern Ireland border, which many MPs said they opposed. The EU has maintained they will not renegotiate the agreement, however. May’s government offered no specific timeline as to when there would be another scheduled vote in Parliament on this or any revised deal — but has said it will not happen until January. There is also a January 21 deadline to present the deal to Parliament. May survived a confidence v