'No deal' or not, restrictions on free movement will affect freelancers

It’s never far from the headlines - especially not today, after yesterday's historic Commons vote - but it can be difficult to establish what real impact Brexit will have on our everyday lives. For the self-employed, one big issue is how easy it will be in future to travel freely to work on contracts in the EU.

Twenty-seven per cent of IPSE members took up contracts in EU countries last year. This helps explain why in the same survey IPSE conducted, a similar number (22%) of respondents thought ‘ensuring free movement of UK citizens across EU’ should be the main priority as we establish our future relationship with the EU. We have therefore been taking a close look at government’s plans in its Immigration White Paper. This explains how the government intends on handling migration from EEA countries (EU plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) post-Brexit – ie those countries where there is currently reciprocal free movement.

It does not clarify whether UK citizens will still be able to work freely in the EU post-Brexit on a self-employed basis. The answer to this question depends on the terms of our future trade deal. But we can reasonably expect a reciprocal approach between the UK and EEA member states, and we therefore need to pay close attention to how the government looks to approach this fraught issue. The signs are not especially promising.

This is because the UK is largely planning on extending the system it currently uses for non-EEA self-employed migrants.  One of these routes is the Exceptional Talent Visa, where an annual limit of 2,000 is placed on those deemed to be leaders in a small number of fields. The Home Office has described this route as ‘hard to meet’, The other route requires you to have over £50,000 available to invest.

The White Paper also says the self-employed ‘may be able to come to the UK through the new skilled worker route, under temporary work routes, or as service suppliers through Mode 4 arrangements’. The first two of these options are more difficult, requiring their engager to pay various fees and enter a cumbersome bureaucratic process. The Mode 4 route allows ‘temporary entry for business purposes’ (up to six months). This includes ‘undertaking short-term paid engagements that relate to a profession such as law or music’.

Further Brexit negotiations could change the picture completely, but at present the signs aren’t great for a reciprocal system that would allow independent professionals to travel and work freely in the EU. The flipside is that a tougher immigration system for European freelancers could mean less competition for UK-based freelancers. This isn’t hugely important for the UK’s self-employed though – just 6 per cent of those surveyed by IPSE cited “restricting immigration from EU nations” as their main negotiating priority.

We also have concerns about another aspect of our future relationship with Europe – to what extent we will have access to the EU’s Single Market for services. Many IPSE members work in the financial services sector for instance, which is very reliant on access to the Single Market. Unsurprisingly, ‘ensuring UK businesses have access to the Single Market for services’ is the number one priority for the self-employed in our future relationship with the EU.

It is therefore worrying that the deal Mrs May has negotiated offers little for the services sector – large manufacturers and exporters are far happier as her deal provides for a “common rule book” for goods, keeping their sectors closely aligned to European markets.

Considering these issues together, IPSE is concerned the government is not doing enough to listen to the UK’s 4.8 million self-employed. This is reflected in the fact 60% of the self-employed feel leaving the EU in line with the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement will have a negative impact on their businesses, similar to the number (64%) who think leaving without a deal will hit their business.

The political atmosphere is extremely febrile at present and most commentators believe the Prime Minister’s deal will be voted down when it comes before Parliament next week on 15th January. At that point we will enter an unknown world, where nobody is sure what will happen before the Article 50 deadline is reached on 29 March.

Whatever future political path we take, politicians must not freeze the 4.8 million self-employed out of this debate. They will be hit hard by a Brexit deal that ignores services, and those that take up contracts in Europe face huge uncertainty as we risk creating a system that makes it extremely difficult for UK-based independent professionals to move and work freely once we leave the European Union.

Meet the author

Jordan Marshall

Policy Development Manager