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UK labour market and its attractiveness for EU skilled workers
20 Feb, 2017

The Government recognises the contribution of high skilled workers and professionals from EU, so it maintains that post-Brexit UK will continue to attract European talent as an important asset for the economy. If we assume that this is an honest goal, we should understand where that attractiveness lies from European professionals’ point of view.

The most simplistic answer is that the so-called ‘economic migrants’ will be able to find in UK a job that is unavailable in their country of origin. Better wages are attractive too. However, the more skilled and educated you are, the more sophisticated your needs can become. There are places all around the world and Europe with plenty of jobs and better wages than UK. Nevertheless, the UK, and particularly London, becomes attractive for a number of reasons, including work market mobility and meritocracy.

In most of the Southern European Countries, meritocracy is often just a fantasy and this is part of the reason why those economies struggle. For European skilled workers and professionals, moving to London means moving to a place in Europe where eventually your ability matters, where competition works, where if you want to increase your income you can work better and harder, negotiate a pay rise, or change your job. Here meritocracy encourages improvement and self-development. That’s the good side of the market when it works. On the top of that, if you are European, UK is still Europe.

Currently, European citizens can stay in any EU country for three months without being hampered by visa bureaucracy, which can affect the search for a job. After three months, if still unemployed, EU nationals must have sufficient resources and sickness insurance to ensure that they do not become a burden on the social services of the host Country. The moment they find a job, they have additional advantages in being in EU: easy movement within Europe to visit family; product sustainability and safety and food granted by EU standards; and challenging opportunities from all over the world because the UK, and London particularly, is Europe’s gateway. The UK is the place for Europeans to meet the world while feeling at home (the EU).

With Brexit, the Government is considering a system with quotas for both European and non-European nationals, to match foreign skilled workers to meet the needs of the UK Market. Is not the market already doing that selection by itself? Doesn’t this approach restrict UK and British companies’ freedom to select their employees on the basis of the skills and needs? Establishing quotas for foreign workers can be perceived as a shift from meritocracy to a discriminatory system based on nationality.

A quota system could work in the Public Sector and actually, under current regulations, EU countries are already allowed to reserve certain public-sector positions for their own nationals (but it seems that that policy is not a priority right now: think about the NHS, which is recruiting doctors and nurses from Portugal, Poland, Romania, etc). A quota system in the public sector is legitimate since the State is the employer, but in the private sector it could be counterproductive.
Some argue a quota system is working in other countries and a visa regime is not a big issue.

However, the UK is neither Australia nor the Silicon Valley and cannot compete with Dubai in terms of salaries. If a similar system is to be introduced in the UK, limiting mobility, implying that foreign workers could not find a job in spite of their merits and because of their nationality, the UK will lose much of its attractiveness for Europeans.

Depending on one’s priorities, it would be more convenient to move to Norway (better wages), Canada (better quality of life), Sweden (better social system), or Germany and France (more European). Or perhaps it is better move to Australia simply for the better climate.

The UK Government may yet decide to ensure already resident EU nationals have the right to stay in the UK. However, post Brexit UK may not be the same place that most of the Europeans chose to work and live in. It will be a total different environment.

The right to stay is up to the Government. The right to move away is already up to all of us.
In the current scenario everything seems to be designed to encourage EU nationals to leave the Country. Therefore, the initial assumption about the trustworthiness of the Government on that matter should be challenged.