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14 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:36pm

Two in three EU nationals may leave the UK. We should be worried

The number of EU applicants for highly-skilled positions has slumped too. 

By Sue Ferns

In Florence, on 22 September, the Prime Minister told EU nationals living in the UK that “it has been, and remains, one of my first goals in this negotiation to ensure that you can carry on living your lives as before”. In doing so, she acknowledged that continuing uncertainty “has been a cause of great worry and anxiety”.

Seven weeks on, and with nothing yet agreed, the mood is changing. A new Prospect poll of more than 600 EU nationals finds a strong sense of anger, alienation and fear. Respondents to our survey spoke about “being caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy”, feeling “betrayed and unwanted”, and “becoming a foreigner in a country that needed my skills 16 years ago and welcomed me with open arms”.

Nearly eight in ten of our respondents feel less welcome in the UK and two thirds are now considering leaving – a prospect that should worry us all. Many operate in international labour and product markets, and make a crucial contribution to the success of the organisations they work for and in turn to the UK as a whole.

There is a damaging mismatch between political timetables and impact on the ground. Our respondents are concerned about a reduced pool of good candidates for highly-skilled positions due to a dramatic reduction in applications from EU candidates. Others talk about EU funding streams already drying up, downgrading of the role of research groups as well as being “uninvited” from participation altogether.

Our feedback shows that the government is squandering the UK’s reputation as an attractive place for foreign talent. It also highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern work environment in which skilled and specialist workers can choose where to live and work, but they do not do so in isolation.

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For example, scientific success depends on teams comprising a diversity of roles including technicians, students and support staff who often undertake highly specialised but not highly paid work. Around two thirds of archaeological businesses currently employ non-UK EU staff whose contribution is crucial to smooth operation of the supply chain for house-building and major infrastructure projects. In the world of media and entertainment, countries with more open migration policies will begin to build capacity in lucrative activities, such as high-end computer graphics for film and TV.

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We are told that the government’s position will be set out in an immigration white paper, though timing seems increasingly uncertain. In preparation, the Migration Advisory Committee has been asked consider how, in the light of Brexit, the UK’s immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy.

Our view is very clear: the UK’s future approach must not just be about erecting barriers to free movement, but about ensuring continued access to the skills needed for economic success and the public good. In sectors like those our members work in, these judgements are most appropriately made by employers through their established HR practices.

Options such as expanding the shortage occupation list or extending the salary thresholds that currently apply to workers from outside the UK will not work well. These systems that wrongly equate academic qualification with skill level and skill level with pay. Roughly four in ten of respondents to our survey earn less than £30,000 annually and would therefore not be able to work in the UK if the government simply applied immigration rules for the rest of the world to EU nationals. This is consistent with official data showing that this rule would catch out more than 70 per cent of archivists, curators and other culture and media occupations, more than 60 per cent of science, engineering and technology associate professionals, and just under half of veterinarians.

To imagine the UK devoid of all this talent is to understand the seriousness of our concerns about the real implications of Brexit.

Sue Ferns is deputy general secretary of Prospect union and a member of the TUC General Council. She tweets at @fernssue.