Brexit, or the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, has been a long and complicated process, and to many it can seem like there is no end in sight. There are concerns that no-deal Brexit could pose major problems with trade, law enforcement, and importantly, cross-border movement. When and if the UK formally leaves the EU will impact EU nationals’ rights to freedom of movement in the UK and vice-versa. This can pose challenges for companies who have historically relied on free movement to employ a mobile European workforce. This post aims to provide a brief overview of Brexit’s major milestones so far, look towards next steps, and discuss what you can do for your affected employees in the face of uncertainty.

A Look Back at Brexit So Far

On June 23, 2016, the UK held a referendum to determine if the UK should formally leave the EU. The narrow decision to leave—51.9% to 48.1%—confirmed that the UK government would begin the process of severing its ties to the EU. This process was formally initiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May on March 29, 2017 when she triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which sets out the conditions under which an EU member state may formally leave. The deadline for the UK to separate was originally set two years from the trigger date on March 29, 2019.

Two years proved to be too little time. No EU member state had ever invoked Article 50 before, and a long and complicated series of deal negotiations ensued. May was unable to secure parliamentary approval of a withdrawal agreement—also known as a “deal” Brexit in which the EU formally agrees to the terms of leaving—prior to the deadline. Rather than face a “no deal” scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without a formal agreement, May was able to extend the deadline to withdraw to October 31, 2019.

After May resigned from the post of Prime Minister on July 24, 2019, Boris Johnson took the reins as the new Prime Minister, pushing forward a Brexit deal in Parliament. However, his revised deal has also been also unsuccessful for the time being. Not receiving the necessary approval from Parliament in time, Johnson was also forced to request an extension to the withdrawal deadline, formally pushing the exit date to January 31, 2020.

A general election was held in the UK on Thursday, December 12, 2019, which will impact the future of Brexit. The Conservative Party maintained an overwhelming lead, keeping Boris Johnson and his party in power.

Current and Future Developments

Johnson’s party campaigned on the simple notion to “get Brexit done.” Now that Boris Johnson is guaranteed to remain Prime Minister, he will aim to push his current deal through. Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal agreement passed the first vote in Parliament, and will now escalate to the committee stage.

Of course, it is possible that political roadblocks or other developments could complicate future Brexit milestones.  Here are the possibilities for what happens next:

  • Brexit moves forward with a deal: Johnson would secure approval on the current Brexit deal from Parliament. Trade talks would begin in weeks, and the formal withdrawal date of January 31, 2020, would proceed. If a deal is passed, there would be a” transition period” in which the UK and EU implement new trade and immigration rules.
  • No-deal Brexit: If a Brexit deal is not passed in time and the withdrawal deadline is not extended, then the UK will leave without a deal. The UK would implement a modified transition period to change the immigration rules, and other EU countries have individual transition periods for varying lengths of time.
  • Deadline extended: If the Brexit deal cannot be ratified, Johnson may seek to extend the deadline again.

Other options for addressing Brexit, such as revoking Article 50 to “cancel” Brexit or holding a new referendum, are unlikely with a Conservative majority.

What You Can Do Now

Companies that employ EU nationals in the UK, and UK nationals in the EU, can take steps now to help minimize the negative effects of Brexit and ensure employees’ continued ability to work. Most countries have created “deal” and “no deal” scenarios, which involve a plan for how to treat foreign workers after Brexit. Many countries will implement a grace period for workers transitioning to a new immigration status. However, in a “no deal” scenario these transitions would be less straightforward, and regulations vary by country.

Companies can start by confirming the total number of foreign workers potentially affected by Brexit, both in the UK and in EU countries and then reach out to immigration counsel for country-specific advice. Chin & Curtis has established partnerships with trusted advisors in the UK and most major EU destinations.  For further guidance regarding the potential impact to your employee population, you can reach out to global@chincurtis.com.

Written by Emma Scott and Christina Elder; January 7, 2020