One of the most looming questions for British students in the wake of Brexit is the potential loss of job prospects in the EU. Free movement between states is a cornerstone of the EU; the Brexit negotiations have called into question the allowance for British citizens to live and work in EU countries, whilst receiving all the benefits of healthcare, retirement and pensions.
According to UN population estimates for 2015, 1.22 million Britons currently live and work in EU countries. Is this number set to plateau or perhaps decline? How difficult will it be for UK university graduates to find employment in the EU in the next few years?
Prime Minister Theresa May has set the deadline for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty for 31 March 2017, meaning that Britain could effectively leave the EU by as early as the summer of 2019 (depending on the timetable of negotiations). This will likely affect current second-year and later students. The graduating class of 2019 could be leaving St Andrews as the initial shocks are felt and the waters are tested by all for a post-Brexit UK.
So how worried should students be? Roland Smith, a fellow the Adam Smith Institute, is of the opinion that job-seekers have nothing to fear, as he believes that the only viable option after Brexit will be to join the European Economic Area (EEA). According to new research from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), after Brexit the UK will have two options: to join Iceland and Norway in the EEA, or Switzerland in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA).
The EFTA is an intergovernmental organization comprised of four states, created to promote free trade and economic integration within Europe and globally. Any states that join must become party to existing free trade agreements. This is not to be confused with the EEA, which simply extends the internal market of the EU to three of the EFTA states, providing the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. For Britain to join the EEA, it must first become a member of the EFTA.
If it chooses to join either, the damage might be limited, because most working rights in Europe for EEA and EFTA citizens are the same as for EU citizens. However, if they choose to join neither, Britons will no longer have automatic access to labor rights within the EU and employers may be able to discriminate against UK citizens on the basis of nationality.
Most significantly, Britons could lose their right to work in Europe without a visa, falling foul of rules in 15 member states that employers must first prove that there are no suitable candidates in the EU or EEA in order to hire someone from outside.
Theresa May’s opposition to entry into the common market to avoid the precondition of free movement could be extended to the EEA or EFTA, meaning that applying for employment within the EU could become far more difficult. Currently, non-EEA citizens are required to obtain residency and work permits in all EU member states. Whilst certainly not impossible, this is a still an administrative pain; a fee must be paid and certain requirements such as labor market tests must be met.
Job-seekers could also gain an EU blue card. Such an official EU-wide permit is recognised in all countries except Denmark, Ireland and the UK, but it is also inconvenient; non-EEA workers must be provided with a work contract or offer with a salary at least 1.5 times the average gross annual salary paid in the country they wish to work in. This is a difficult ask for recent graduates, and the requirements for applicants do not end there.
So which countries should one apply within to avoid these logistical nightmares? First, consider Spain, which currently has the largest number of British expats out of all EU countries by a significant margin and has no restrictions on labor market access. In addition, according to a recent report by the ECFR, Slovenia, Romania, Portugal, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Croatia also have no restrictions imposed.
This is not to say that these are the only EU countries that Britons will be looking to move to in the coming years, nor that the countries outside of these will not be hiring British candidates. A lot depends on the kind of deal that the UK concludes with the EU. If it remains within the single market, it would almost certainly retain free movement rights, allowing UK citizens to work in the EU and vice versa. Conversely, if the government chooses to impose work permit restrictions upon EU nationals, then other countries may reciprocate, meaning that Britons would have to apply for visas to work.
It seems likely that in the coming years, a mood of uncertainty and fear will prevail amongst young British job seekers abroad. The validity of those fears and the extent to which employment prospects in Europe will be hurt by Brexit remains to be seen.