On June 23, 2016, the UK voted in a referendum whether to leave the EU. The UK government will now initiate the procedure under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty leading to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The UK will be immediately excluded from the European Council and the Council of Ministers, and a negotiation period of two years will commence during which the terms of its withdrawal and of its future relationship with the EU will be determined. No member state has initiated this procedure before, and so it is impossible to predict what this future relationship will be. Furthermore, the UK’s relationships with non-EU states will have to be independently reestablished, as it will no longer be entitled to rely on the bilateral treaties with those states it enjoyed whilst an EU member state.

This Client Alert will focus on the likely impact of Brexit on the laws of the UK influencing key business areas for U.S. corporations doing business in the UK.

M&A

The UK Companies Act 2006, which embodies UK law as it relates to both public and private companies, has been significantly influenced by EU directives, however, it is highly unlikely that Brexit will result in any changes to UK company law, so the basic mechanics of acquisitions and disposals of UK companies will remain the same. The vast majority of M&A transactions in Europe take place between private companies, either by means of an acquisition of shares or of assets, and Brexit will not affect the laws governing such transactions.

The EU Takeover Directive harmonises public company takeovers in the EU and is modelled on the UK Takeover Code, which regulates takeovers of public limited companies in the UK. Brexit is therefore unlikely to have any significant impact on takeovers.

The EU Cross-Border Mergers Directive enables a private or public company in one EU member state to merge with a company in another member state. Brexit means that UK companies will cease to benefit from this regime.

Brexit may possibly affect competition law in the longer term. Currently anti-competitive agreements and abuses of dominant positions in the UK are policed by the Competition and Markets Authority under laws and procedures which mirror EU regulations. In the case of mergers, however, larger transactions are dealt with by the European Commission on a “one-stop-shop” basis to save the parties having to file in several states. Brexit could lead to a decoupling of UK competition law from that of the EU and the end of the “one-stop-shop,” at least for UK mergers.

Commercial Contracts

Existing contracts which continue beyond Brexit could be affected in a number of ways, for example:

  • Depending on how the contract is drafted, Brexit might constitute a “material adverse change,” entitling the parties to terminate;
  • Provisions which have EU territorial scope, such as restrictive covenants or exclusive sales rights, will no longer include the UK;
  • If import duties are imposed as a result of Brexit, contractual pricing mechanisms may operate to shift the burden of such additional costs onto one of the parties making performance more costly.

New contracts should take such matters into account, and now that Brexit is a reality, parties should negotiate how its consequences will be dealt with and who bears the risk.

Debt and Equity Financing

Similar considerations apply to financing transactions on Brexit as apply to M&A deals and commercial contracts. Generally the effect on such transactions will be insignificant.

In the case of loan facility documents, EU territorial clauses may be affected by the UK’s departure from the EU, and Brexit may trigger an event of default in the case of particularly harsh “material adverse change” provisions. The imposition of tariffs and duties and the consequences of market disruption as a result of Brexit might lead to lenders passing on increased costs to borrowers. Brexit might also cause a UK borrower to make an inadvertent misrepresentation (for example, that it is in compliance with EU laws and regulations). It is difficult to see how Brexit would prejudice English law security taken under a security document (with the one exception of intellectual property rights – see below).

Equity financing documents, such as placing and underwriting agreements and prospectuses, will be similarly affected. In addition, the possible loss of the “passporting” regime for the sale and distribution of securities throughout the European Economic Area (EEA) would adversely affect fundraising outside the UK. On an IPO or bond issue, issuers should consider a Brexit-related risk factor disclosure in their prospectuses, especially if their business is likely to be adversely affected by Brexit.

Funds and Asset Management

Brexit could have potentially significant adverse consequences for funds and asset managers in the UK.

Initially, UK fund managers will be treated as non-EEA alternative investment fund managers and lose their managing and marketing passports into the EU. Currently, thanks to the “passport” regime, under the Alternative Investment Funds Management Directive (AIFMD), both UK and non-UK funds can be managed by UK-regulated fund managers operating out of the UK, and such fund managers can market and distribute the fund throughout the EU. Such fund managers will cease to qualify for a passport on Brexit. Under current rules, they could only market such funds as alternative investment funds to EEA investors under local private placement arrangements, if applicable.

Also, as undertakings for collective investment in transferable securities (UCITS) must be EU domiciled and managed by an EU management company, Brexit could be potentially disastrous for a UK-domiciled UCITS fund.

UCITS funds are subject to strict investment rules, including a maximum investment of 30 percent of their assets in non-UCITS collective investment schemes. Brexit will result in many such funds having to alter their investment mandates to take account of the UK no longer being a member of the EU. Similarly, even non-UCITS funds, whose investment policies are to invest in EU securities, will have to readjust their portfolio investments in UK companies or amend their policies.

Employment

The vast majority of UK employment law is “home grown,” such as protection against unfair dismissal, the right to a payment on redundancy, protection against sex, race, nationality, ethnic origin and disability discrimination, and the right to a minimum wage. EU directives have contributed to UK employment law in areas such as the protection of employment rights on the transfer of undertakings, the obligation to consult with employees in the case of mass redundancies, working time limits and minimum holiday pay.

These EU-derived employment laws have become so integral to UK employment law that it is unlikely that Brexit will affect them.

In fact, previous UK governments have tended to “gold plate” EU directives and regulations (for example, the Working Time Directive allows full-time employees 20 days of paid annual leave, but the UK application of that law allows 28 days). It is possible that, outside the EU, a future UK government will review certain aspects of the legislation which have not sat well with UK businesses since their inception, including in particular, the weekly limit on working hours, regulations relating to agency workers and work councils and even those in respect of collective consultation with employees in general.

As in the case of commercial contracts, employment agreements with EU territorial scope may be affected (for example, in the case of covenants not to compete or solicit customers or employees in the EU after termination of employment).

Brexit may deny the UK access to the “single market” of the EU, including the right of free movement of workers between the UK and the remaining EU member states. This will adversely affect the ability of UK companies to manage a cross-border skilled and experienced workforce.

Trade

Many UK trade laws derive from EU law such as the following:

  • Product safety
  • Consumer protection
  • Laws on unfair contracts
  • The rights of commercial agents
  • On-line shopping
  • Payment services
  • Laws on hazardous chemicals
  • Certification of electrical and medical devices

Most of these laws have become enshrined in UK law for many years and are unlikely to be affected by Brexit. However some, which derive from secondary legislation, would lapse unless a post-Brexit government were to preserve them (for example, the regulations governing consumer protection from unfair trading, general product safety, and consumer contracts in respect of “distance” sales of goods and services to consumers).

The withdrawal of the UK from the EU “single market” could entail import duties on the export of products and services from the UK to the EU. Also institutions, such as banks, trading companies and professional firms, such as lawyers and accountants, would cease to enjoy the single market in the provision of services, which could lead to the restructuring or even relocation of their EU-based offices.

Intellectual Property

As one of the largest creators of intellectual property in the EU, the UK and its entrepreneurial innovators could be significantly affected by Brexit.

The Community Trade Mark would cease to apply in the UK. This would require trade marks to be registered both in the UK and as CTMs, incurring additional costs and potentially adversely affecting existing trade mark licenses and security over trade marks.

Currently UK patents are protected and registered under UK legislation, and so Brexit will not affect them (or European patents designating the UK). From 2017, a new EU patent system, the Unitary Patent, is scheduled to be launched, with its new court, the Unified Patents Court, expected to take its seat in London. Brexit would exclude UK patents from this unified system, and London will lose its new court.

Data Protection

The UK law on data protection is based on EU law but dates back to 1998, and so it is unlikely to be significantly affected by Brexit. There are current EU proposals to strengthen the law under the General Data Protection Regulation, and it is likely that the UK will now adopt this.

Post-Brexit cross-border transfers of personal data to the UK are unlikely to be automatically permissible from EU member states. The UK would have to apply to the European Commission for a decision that its data protection standards are adequate to protect the privacy of EU residents (which means the EU standards would have to be met in any event). In the recent case of Schrems, the European Court of Justice held that the United States had not complied with European data protection standards (as Facebook had allegedly transferred consumers’ data to the NSA) and abolished the “safe harbour” rules which had hitherto permitted such transfers from the EU to the United States. If the EC were to deny or restrict the terms of its adequacy decision, the UK could find itself in a similar position to that of the United States after Brexit, which could seriously adversely affect technology providers with UK-based data centres offering services to EU clients.

Conclusion

The legal consequences of Brexit are difficult to quantify. Much will depend on the exit terms negotiated between the UK and the remaining EU member states and the status of the continuing relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit. Such matters will not be known for at least two years. In the interim the status quo will survive. What is clear is that U.S. corporations doing business in the UK should maintain a well-informed “watching brief” on post-Brexit developments, plan in advance for the potential adverse consequences described in this Client Alert and ensure that any new business or contractual relationships make provision for Brexit.