As Britain begins the process of extracting itself from the EU, nobody can say with any real certainty at this stage just how UK business immigration will change after Brexit, and which UK business immigration policies could or will replace the current system.
For UK business owners that rely on EU migrant labour or have UK staff based elsewhere in the EU, Brexit raises an acute area of uncertainty for the future of their businesses.
A period of intense negotiation
Extensive negotiations will follow the UK’s formal notification of departure under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. These will need to cover all aspects of immigration, as well as trade tariffs, financial regulations and the myriad of other significant issues.
All agreements will then need to be ratified by both the European Council and Parliament.
At the same time, Britain needs to negotiate separate trading arrangements with all non-EU countries.
The Lisbon Treaty allows a period of up to two years to conclude these complex negotiations, which can only be extended by unanimous vote of the EU.
During all of this time, the UK will remain part of the EU.
The possible impact of Brexit on UK business immigration policy
The Freedom of Movement Act permits EU citizens to migrate freely in any EU country. When the UK leaves, it could freely limit the migration of EU citizens.
We could see the introduction of a flexible migration policy that allows British employers to bring in talent while ensuring control of UK borders. This could look like the Australian or Canadian-style point system designed to attract skilled workers, in high demand industries, from a variety of countries.
One possible outcome is that Britain leaves the EU and remains part of the European Economic Area (EEA), committed to the single market and free movement. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein all operate in this way.
And it would be remiss to totally disregard the possibility that there will be no change in immigration policy at all.
Existing migrant workers in the UK
When immigration policy changes have been implemented in the past, they have typically been applied non-retrospectively, i.e. only to migrants applying after the date of reform.
In the same way, it is expected that migrants from the EU currently in Britain will be unaffected by any changes to UK immigration policy.
Most likely, the UK will implement a system that allows existing migrants from the EU to make visa applications for indefinite leave to remain and, where necessary, bridging visas.
If a system such as this were put in place, it is reasonable to anticipate that similar rights would be granted to UK citizens currently living and working elsewhere in the EU.
Again, this is just speculation. There are no guarantees at this point.
To gain some degree of control and certainty, we are seeing many businesses attempting to cement the residential rights of their EU employees now. There has been a surge in the number of applications for British citizenship, permanent residence and enquiries about other visa contingency plans to secure status in the UK.
Businesses and individuals are advised to seek professional advice to manage risks and prepare for any changes to UK immigration policy in the run up to Brexit.