The EU referendum vote takes place on 23 June 2016 and is widely considered to be one of the most significant votes during the lifetime of many people. It is important to be well informed in the run-up to this milestone ballot.

In recent months as media reports have multiplied, we have had a rush of enquiries from EEA nationals wanting to secure permanent residency/British citizenship. Our business clients have also advised us that they have had increases in enquiries from their staff.

Below we examine some of the key issues:

Currently EEA nationals are allowed to:

  • enter the UK freely
  • once in the UK work in any role
  • settle in the UK permanently after five years, if they have been exercising Treaty rights
  • be accompanied by family members, including non-EEA family members

If the UK was to vote to Brexit, nothing is likely to‎ happen immediately. No state has ever withdrawn from the EU before, so if the UK opts to leave, we will be in unchartered territory. Under its Treaty obligations, the UK Government will have to give formal notice to the other member states, which will trigger a two year negotiated exit process (Article 50 of the consolidated Treaty of European Union). Upon serving notice to leave, the UK would need to start negotiations for a 'withdrawal agreement', the terms of which would have to be agreed by a qualifying majority of the remaining EU states.

The truth is however no one can be certain who will be impacted. It is also likely that transitional arrangements will apply.

It is possible that even following a Brexit vote and at the end of the negotiation period any final agreement will leave freedom of movement largely or wholly unchanged. For example, Norway is outside the European Union but accepts freedom of movement as part of its wider deal with the EU as an EEA member. The UK could end up with a similar agreement.

Should the UK vote to Brexit and at the end of the negotiations the UK is no longer bound by free movement, EU and EEA nationals currently in the UK should note:

  • those who have permanent residence and hold a permanent residence card are unlikely to be affected
  • those who have permanent residence but have not yet obtained a permanent residence card may be required to do so
  • those who have not yet qualified for permanent residence may be subject to transitional arrangements

Those EU/EEA nationals who may wish to enter the UK in the future to work may, for example, have to use the Tier 2 route which means that any employer wishing to employ them will have to satisfy the Resident Labour Market requirements (unless exempt).

Businesses will also need to consider the implications of a Brexit vote and how this may impact their ability to hire EU/EEA nationals. Those who currently rely on an EU/EEA labour force may have to consider whether they need to apply for a Tier 2 sponsor licence.

There is no doubt that the current state of affairs creates uncertainty for businesses and only time will tell how the Government will provide clarity over which laws will still apply and which will be changed.