When the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993, it contained a provision that established the free movement of persons and labour, which the UK was bound by as an EU Member State.
The idea was to ensure equal treatment of individuals wanting to move from one country to another, such as teachers wanting to move from another EU member to the UK and work here. Under those freedom of movement rules, these individuals are to be treated as if they’re UK nationals, in accordance with principles of non-discrimination that underline EU law.
The question many are asking now is what the immediate ramifications will be for EU workers in the UK if the country withdraws from the EU next year without a deal in place. If that happens, EU workers will no longer enjoy the special status they’ve had up to now that encompasses equal treatment and non-discrimination, but it’s unclear exactly what their status would be.
If the government chooses to implement some form of points-based migration policy, their eligibility to work in the UK would become similar to that of non-EU nationals – which in the case of school employees, might mean something close to the existing Tier 2 skilled work visa, and all the sponsorship and salary restrictions it entails.
The main form of protection for EU workers against this change might for them to argue that it violates the European Convention on Human Rights – a non-EU human rights treaty that the UK will remain signed up to after Brexit.
It protects the right to a private and family life, so if an employee were to be stripped of his or her job without any notice or protections in place, that could be interpreted as an interference in their private life. Depending on how reliant their families are on their earnings, it could extend to them too.
It obviously depends on the individuals concerned, but if I was an EU citizen who had been here for five or more years, I would apply for permanent residency or settled status to protect myself and my existing rights as far as possible. But since no one currently knows what’s going to happen, it’s difficult for employers to make any preparations.
They can very well tell their EU citizen employees that their jobs are safe, but the rules may change and those employees could end up having to apply for visas. It wouldn’t be in any employer’s interest to effectively promise their employees something they can’t deliver.
That’s the real problem with all of this. The uncertainty means that everybody is unsure, which in turn generates yet more uncertainty and a reluctance for anyone to promise anything. Everybody is in limbo.