What freedom of movement means to business

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A photograph released 07 August 2017 shows the UK's financial heart, the City of London in London, Britain, 06 July 2017. [Andy Rain/EPA]

Although the question of European nationals in the UK has been addressed, the fate of UK nationals working in the EEA still remains unknown. It’s a pressing topic for EU and UK businesses, writes Robert Glick.

Robert Glick serves as vice president of corporate communications & international government affairs at American Express.

At last we are moving to another crucial step in the Brexit process: the start of negotiations on a transition period. Businesses have long awaited this moment and will be watching with even greater interest the progress of official talks, slated to begin later this year, around the future EU-UK trade relationship.

To date, the debate about citizens’ rights after Brexit has concentrated on the status of the millions of European nationals in the UK – not particularly surprising, given the prominent role of the immigration issue in the internal British debate in the run-up to, and subsequent to, the referendum.

The December Joint Report, which expressed a common understanding between the UK and the EU, and the UK Prime Minister’s two Open Letters to EU citizens in the UK last year, went some way to clarifying the situation.  The reassurances offered by the UK Government have been welcomed by the EU nationals to whom they were addressed, as well as by the thousands of businesses that employ them.

But this is a two-way street. The status of British nationals working in a European Economic Area (EEA) country up to Brexit Day in 2019 seems largely to have been settled. But the question of future recruitment within the EEA from the UK, as well as the rights of UK workers to move between EEA countries after March 2019, have not yet properly been addressed, let alone resolved, and Prime Minister Theresa May has suggested that she will take a tougher line on post-Brexit migrants.

Negotiations on the transition regime may at best end in a decision to postpone the end of the current rules by a couple of years; but it is far from clear what final state is desired, on either side of the Channel. The risk of a cliff edge, which now seems likely to be avoided in March 2019, might well simply reappear in December 2020.

Crucially, international businesses greatly depend on the mobility of workers within their talent pool.  American Express is no exception. Operating in many countries across the Continent, our European workforce numbers more than ten thousand people.

And while it is clearly understood that the contribution of EEA workers to the success of our UK-based operations would be difficult to replace, the same goes for our European offices, all of which benefit from the availability of well-qualified British workers.

Indeed, the opportunity for businesses to access a talent pool, with a highly diversified skill set, from anywhere in Europe remains of immeasurable importance.  The objective, of course, is always to recruit the best person for the job, irrespective of nationality.

Yet many companies operating in the UK have found, for instance, that the necessary fluency in European languages – vital for customer service – is not always readily obtainable in the UK workforce. That’s why we and so many other businesses have been urging the UK government to provide even greater direction where it can, by confirming companies in the UK will be able easily to recruit and retain EEA workers well past 2019.

Likewise, companies with operations or headquarters outside the UK also need to continue to be able to hire British staff for their offices in the EU and to benefit from their service-oriented mindset and notorious pragmatism.

A flexible international recruitment environment is an essential ingredient to enable European companies to be as nimble and as relevant as today’s global business landscape requires. Undoubtedly, doing so also brings with it an immensely positive impact on employee morale, productivity and a workplace culture where diversity can be leveraged and celebrated.

In short, global companies need access to international talent, which must include British workers in the rest of the EU. Any fresh constraints on the recruitment and retention of the most qualified workers will challenge the ability of companies like ours to hold our own against global players and to ensure European business more broadly remains robust and truly competitive.

UK businesses must, and do, respect the decision taken by British voters to leave the EU.  But choices have consequences, and we and many other companies with a solid UK footprint – from every sector and of every size – will be watching the progress of the Brexit negotiations, and the implementation of the agreements made so far, with great interest.

These businesses will make decisions about their future investments very carefully, and urgently need clarity on key issues, of which immigration is at the top of the list. In order to continue to maximise our presence in Europe, both in the UK and on the continent, smart immigration policies are needed all around.

Count on business to watch carefully, and to contribute substantively to the debate.