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What the trade deal with the EU means for immigration in the UK

United Kingdom
Written by
Lewis Silkin, widely recognised as the UK’s leading specialist employment law practice.
Free movement of persons between the UK and the EU ended on 31 December 2020. This article sets out some of the main points for employers to be aware of in relation to the new UK immigration rules.

With the end of the Brexit implementation period comes the end of free movement of persons. This is the case irrespective of the fact that the UK has secured a trade deal with the EU. 

Employers and individuals must digest what the new immigration rules look like, both for EEA/Swiss (‘EEA’) nationals aside from Irish nationals wishing to come to the UK, and British nationals wishing to go to the continent. We have summarised some of the main points to be aware of and to act on here. 

To-date, the surge of sponsor licence applications the UK Home Office was expecting to receive has not materialised. This is no doubt due in large part to the depressive effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the economy, and the need for businesses to focus on the basics of continuing to be able to trade. 

The roll-out of an approved COVID-19 vaccine in will improve the economic outlook in 2021, and employers should not defer considering if and when they anticipate needing to make appropriate sponsor licence applications in the UK if they do not already have arrangements in place. Being proactive about this will avoid an employer being on the back foot if a need to recruit an EEA national worker arises, particularly if there is an urgent need to fill an open vacancy, or the employer wants to minimise the chance their preferred candidate may take an offer with a shorter recruitment timeline. A sponsor licence will also be needed for intra-company transfers, which, for businesses that have set up a presence in the EEA over the past few years, may be something that has been overlooked or deprioritised while free movement arrangements have continued. 

Similarly, businesses in the EEA will need to engage with the issue of rolling UK nationals into their recruitment process for third country nationals. 

In the UK, many EEA nationals will still be able to take advantage of the EU Settlement Scheme, but factors such as absences must be carefully understood and monitored to ensure they are eligible. Our article here covers more detail on this. 

Individuals who are not eligible under the EU Settlement Scheme or the equivalent schemes in the EEA will also need to make significant adjustments to how they think about international moves between the UK and the EEA from an immigration perspective. The cost of immigration applications under domestic rules is substantial and the process is complex and bureaucratic. Negotiating the process will require careful planning and budgeting rather than just deciding to get on a plane. 

The presence of a trade deal does however make the expansion of mobility arrangements less complex to negotiate and administer in the future. An initial EU trade deal opens up the possibility of uniform arrangements being secured for all EU countries on issues such as youth mobility under an expanded deal in due course, with other EEA countries likely to follow suit. 

Employers, both in the UK and the EEA, will need to engage with the strategic and operational implications of free movement ending. Individuals may also need assistance to negotiate domestic immigration laws when planning international moves. 

Andrew Osborne
Partner - United Kingdom
Lewis Silkin
Kathryn Denyer
Associate - United Kingdom
Lewis Silkin