Skills and citizenship: the impact of political uncertainty on business immigration

As Theresa May begins to disclose some detail on the rights of the three million EU citizens resident in Britain post Brexit, we reflect on what happened at a recent breakfast panel discussion we hosted this month on potential changes to the UK business immigration system.

Immigration has been at the heart of the debate around Brexit since the referendum was announced and, since Britain voted to leave the EU a year ago, uncertainty around the rights of EU citizens living in the UK have kept many business owners awake at night.

Our panel comprised Sebastian Remøy, President of Public Affairs at strategic communications advisory firm Kreab; Chris Pond, Chair of the Lending Standards Board and Vice Chair of the Financial Inclusion Commission; and Tim Cook, CEO of nGAGE Specialist Recruitment, who was there to give a much needed reality check on what’s actually happening – on the ground – within businesses. Mishcon Immigration Partner Steven Bostock chaired the event.

The triumph of pro-EU French President Emmanuel Macron contributes to the current picture being one of ‘Brussels being strong and stable, and the UK being weak and wobbly’, according to Brussels based Remøy, who kicked off the discussion by giving some context. He is keen to stress that, in his view, no deal actually is worse than a bad deal: ‘the UK cannot have partial access to the single market: it’s a non-starter. The EU is still saying, you have to have the whole packet.’

A softer Brexit, says Pond, a former Labour MP, ‘is more likely’ in light of June’s election, a theory which appears, at least in part, to have been supported by Theresa May’s proposals on settlement rights of EU Nationals.

There has been much speculation from political figures, political commentators and campaigning bodies on both sides of the immigration debate. But the voice of business and industry, agreed our panel, has fallen on deaf ears, leaving many business leaders frustrated and forced to take proactive measures to protect their business against unprecedented and undefined change.

Cook, who incorporated his nGAGE business in Ireland the day after Brexit and who has since opened an office in Frankfurt, is just one example of this. ‘Business people are left guessing and so they have to hedge.’ His business, he explains, is becoming more international. This isn’t necessarily a negative for nGAGE, but does have negative implications for UK and British workers. Business owners like Cook have been forced to consider measures such as further streamlining through the introduction or increased use of automation. Cook says he has spent the past 12 months ‘Brexit-proofing‘ his businesses ‘at the cost of adding any real value to it‘.

He asserts that, in the context of the lowest unemployment rate for years in Britain, ‘the inability to find talent is the greatest inhibitor to growth’.  His business, which deals in specialist recruitment, has ‘more jobs to fill than it knows what to do with’. But the skills shortage and the security of the EU nationals who provide so many of these skills and their families cannot be guaranteed until the EU accepts some version of May’s offer. Until then, uncertainty reigns.

Read our latest issue of Brussels Insider here.