Brexit and the English Premier League

As Tereza May said “Brexit is Brexit” many may not have believed her at the time but now it is a fact.

As of 1st February 2020, the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the European Union.

The departure of the UK from the EU will have a profound effect on many industries.

The impending effective abolition of the free movement of workers / labour from the EU to the UK and vice versa (one of the two main pillars of the free market that is protected by the Treaty of Rome which established the union of nations now known as the European Union) will take the United Kingdom back to the situation that prevailed before entry into the EU in 1973.

There is no doubt that the membership of the European Union and the effect of the Bosman ruling have changed the face of football in the United Kingdom.

European footballers are by far the largest group of players in the British game. Henry, Ronaldo, KDB players of the past and present who have graced the British game.

Managers too, Wenger, Mourinho, Guardiola and, more recently, Klopp, have all left their mark on the English game and the Premier League in particular.

All Europeans who, with their status and skills, have made the Premier League the best and richest league in the world.

After Brexit and following the end of the transition period, European sportspersons (footballers and managers are no exception) who will not have applied for and received “settled status” (as explained below) will have to apply for a work permit on the same basis of sportspersons from third (non-European and non-European Economic Area [EEA]) countries.

All European citizens currently living and working in the UK may apply for “Settled Status” as explained below:

In a paper titled “The UK’s Future Skills-Based Immigration System Presented to the Parliament in Westminster in December 201,8 by the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sajid Javid MP began,” some may say ominously, as follows:

“The ability to control immigration and secure our border was an important part of why many people voted to leave the European Union.”

He then went on to say the following with respect to EU / EEA citizens who are currently living in the UK:

“We have been so clear to those EU citizens who have made their home here that we want them to stay, and we have given them certainty that their, and their family members’, rights will be protected.”

In making such a statement the UK Government was clearly seeking reciprocal treatment for the hundreds of thousands of British expatriates living and working or living as retirees in the EU. “Settled Status” may be obtained by EU and EEA citizens who are currently in the UK by way of an application made during the transition period to 31st December 2020 and ensures that all pre- Brexit rights enjoyed by EU / EEA citizens will remain indefinitely.

Post 2020, however, the rules, in so far as entry into the UK is concerned, will change. Britain’s immigration policy will be “skills based” or… perhaps more accurately, “Britain First” based, as is evident from the same statement of the Home Secretary which goes on to state the following:

“To ensure we get the most from immigration though we must be able to control it. That’s why, in future, anyone wanting to come to the UK will need to obtain permission – enhancing the security and safety of our people.

This new system will be focused on those with the skills we need, who bring the most benefit to the United Kingdom. Our new route for skilled workers will enable employers – in both the private and public sectors – to access the talent they need. This will help support wage growth, and productivity improvements. But we understand this is the most significant change to the immigration system in more than 40 years, and so employers will need time to adjust.”

The above stated criteria are effectively a reiteration of the requirements for the issue of a “Tier 2” work permit for non-European and non-EEA elite sportspersons including, of course, footballers and coaches.

These are the following:

  • The applicant must be an elite sportsperson or qualified coach, who is recognized by the sport’s governing body (in the case of football in England this is the English Football Association [FA]) as being at the highest level of the profession internationally.
  • The employment must be of the type that will develop the sport in the UK at the highest level.
  • The Football Association must also endorse the application.

The above rules will in all probability not adversely affect the influx of the uppermost tier of European and non-European and non-EEA players, namely players who are already established internationally.

However, the new rules may well stifle the influx of players who may be the stars of the future but are not yet considered ‘elite’ and recognized as ‘being at the highest level of the profession’.

There is a distinct possibility that the new rules may have the effect of taking the UK back to pre- Bosman times.

Given that the Bosman ruling will, of course, continue to apply to Europe, then it is clear that, unless there is a specific relaxation for ‘the national game,’ the new immigration rules as announced by the UK Home Secretary will certainly serve to reduce the competitiveness of English Premier League clubs in Europe.

To make matters worse, it is being heard that the FA, which is an organization with omnipotent powers and effectively answerable to nobody and which befitting its “God-like” status, more often than not moves in mysterious ways, will seek to use the new immigration rules and the resulting fact that European and EEA players will not be granted free access into the UK as an opportunity to seek to generally limit the number of foreign players in league squads. The old argument that the influx of foreign players adversely affects the quality and development of British footballers and British national teams will no doubt be heard again. The FA, depending upon the stance that they will take, may be of the mind that they must take a hard line in interpreting and endorsing a footballer or, for that matter, also a coach as ‘elite’ and ‘at the top of his / her profession’ or as a person ‘who will develop the game at its highest level in the UK.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that an insular attitude in the FA inspired or in response to a hard Brexit may result in interpretations that may limit the influx of young European coaches as well as players into the UK. Anyone who follows English football will know the frequent calls for English coaches such as Steve Bruce and Eddie Howe to be given a chance with the bigger clubs.

Ask yourselves, for example, would the current Manchester United and Arsenal coaches, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Norway – although not an EU member – is part of the European Economic Area) and Mikel Arteta (Spain) have been able to gain a Tier 2 work permit if they were not Europeans or EEA? In reality they are as yet unproven. Would they be considered as being ‘elite’ and ‘recognized as being at the highest level of the profession’?  It is a matter of opinion and conjecture.

We have a no deal Brexit. We have no certainty. The Premier League and the FA must move quickly; the uncertainty must end. Footballers have short careers and increasingly wily and, with some notable exceptions, sophisticated and dedicated agents who will protect and encourage their stars to be prudent, especially at the outset of their careers, and to look for certainty rather than the uncertainty that will almost undoubtedly cast its deep long shadow in the post no-deal Brexit period.

Uncertainty will not only limit the influx of young players and coaches. It will also drive up the transfer fees of both elite British footballers who will now be at an ever increasing premium and the ‘eligible’ foreign players, making both inaccessible to all but the richest clubs.

Spanish, Italian and German clubs, as well as clubs from less popular leagues but in countries with a more liberal immigration policy than that of the UK (Holland for instance), must be rubbing their hands with gleeful anticipation that after 2020 they may well find themselves becoming increasingly attractive propositions for many of the foreign playing and coaching stars of the future than their premiership rivals.