Past Event

Labour mobility after Brexit

What will Brexit mean for the free movement of workers between the UK and the EU?

Date: December 2, 2016, 12:00 pm Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance



Immigration was a major factor – if not the major factor – in the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Brexit is a reflection of values on multiculturalism and globalization. The UK government is promising to take a tough stance on immigration in the negotiations. Meanwhile EU leaders are signalling that freedom of movement is non-negotiable and four central European countries are threatening to block any trade deal with the UK that would restrict the rights of their workers to live and work in the EU.

At this event we brought together three experts to discuss what Brexit is likely to mean for the free movement of workers between the UK and the EU. As a result, three main ideas have emerged:

Economic consequences are adverse

The United Kingdom has witnessed a rapid growth of EU nationals in the labour market in a very short time. Currently, half of the people who access the English labour market are international, half of whom do not have a secured job when entering the UK. This panorama is likely to change.

While in theory the consequences for high-skilled and low-skilled workers would be different, the former facing lower immigration controls, in practice it is not possible to control low-skilled migration without controlling high-skilled migration: A skill-based system implies proof of skills, which is in itself a barrier.  Middle-skilled workers (e.g. lab technicians) are left with a more uncertain picture. They do not qualify under the current UK immigration rules as skilled and often require an investment in training that is unappealing in this setting.

Businesses that rely heavily on low-skilled migrant workers may face costs in changing their recruitment system, as the pool of the unemployed British cannot replace this gap.

In summary, controlling free movement in the workplace is expected to lead to an increase in costly regulatory burdens and bureaucracy. A reduction in openness is likely to have short-term and long-term negative effects in the country’s output and productivity.

Solutions are unclear and complex

While the end of free movement is not a synonym for border controls, it is expectable that applications for work permits will be held at Embassies before entering the country. For non-British residents, formalities to remain in the UK – including the registration process and the eligibility conditions – are still unclear.

Policy choices essentially divide between a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ Brexit. A soft Brexit would resemble a ‘Norwegian’ model, characterized by free movement and membership in the EEA. However, the British public’s need to feel a tangible difference might push for a hard Brexit that treats Europeans as third country nationals. In any of the scenarios, effective public acceptance will be hard to measure.

A wider debate is launched

At a time when evidence policymaking is being advocated, the trend seems to be evidence-free policymaking. Labour mobility policies may reduce inequality, yet there is a wide misunderstanding by a large part of the population of the effects of migration. For how long can reality move away from the facts, and how can the public debate be so different from reality? The audience concluded that the wave of populism in Europe cannot be explained using only economics. It is essential that societal factors are taken into account when discussing these issues and bring back the connection to the people. In this sense, it was suggested that businesses too have the responsibility to speak out.

Event notes by Inês Gonçalves Raposo

VIDEO and audio recording

Event materials

Jonathan Portes – Presentation


Dec 02, 2016


Check-in and lunch


Panel discussion

Chair: Zsolt Darvas, Senior Fellow

Lindsey Barras, Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal

Jonathan Portes, Principal Research Fellow, National Institute of Economic and Social Research

Klaus F. Zimmermann, Princeton University and UNU-MERIT






Lindsey Barras

Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal

Zsolt Darvas

Senior Fellow

Jonathan Portes

Principal Research Fellow, National Institute of Economic and Social Research

Klaus F. Zimmermann

Princeton University and UNU-MERIT

Location & Contact

Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels

Matilda Sevon

Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Is there a way out of non-performing loans in Europe?

At this event we looked at the issue of non-performing loans in Europe. The event also saw the launch of the latest issue of "European Economy – Banks, Regulation and the Real Sector."

Speakers: Emilios Avgouleas, Giorgio Barba Navaretti, Giacomo Calzolari, Maria Demertzis, Martin Hellwig, Helen Louri and Laura von Daniels Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: July 6, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Review of EU-third country cooperation on policies falling within the ITRE domain in relation to Brexit

What is the possible future relationship between the EU and the UK in light of Brexit? The report provides a critical assessment of the implications of existing models of cooperation between third countries and the European Union on energy, electronic communications, research policy and small business policy.

By: J. Scott Marcus, Georgios Petropoulos, André Sapir, Simone Tagliapietra, Alessio Terzi, Reinhilde Veugelers and Georg Zachmann Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 5, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Can EU actors keep using common law after Brexit?

English common law is the choice of law for financial contracts, even for parties in EU members with civil law systems. This creates a lucrative legal sector in the UK, but Brexit could make UK court decisions difficult to enforce in the EU. Parties will be able to continue using English common law after Brexit, but how will these contracts be enforced? Some continental courts are preparing to make judicial decisions on common law cases in the English language.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 22, 2017
Read article More by this author

Parliamentary Testimony

House of Commons

Exiting the European Union Committee

On 19 April 2017 Zsolt Darvas appeared as a witness at the Exiting the European Union Committee, the House of Commons, United Kingdom.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, House of Commons, Testimonies Date: June 20, 2017
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Fintech and the digital transformation of banking

FinTech is changing the financial sector. What are the challenges associated with this and what policies should we adopt in response?

Speakers: Xavier Corman, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, Georgios Petropoulos, Ezequiel Szafir and Pēteris Zilgalvis Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 20, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Brexit and the future of the Irish border

The future of the Irish land border has been thrown into uncertainty by Brexit. The UK's confirmation that it will leave the EU's single market and customs union implies that customs checks will be needed. However, there is little desire for hard controls from any of the parties involved. This is especially true for Theresa May's potential partner, the DUP. Creative solutions are needed to reach a solution.

By: Filippo Biondi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 19, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Lessons for the future governance of financial assistance in the EU

On 14th June, Randall Henning will present his latest book on the Euro crisis and we will discuss how financial assistance should be governed in the euro area in the future.

Speakers: Servaas Deroose, C. Randall Henning, Rolf Strauch and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 14, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

The Mariel Boatlift Controversy

What's at stake: how does immigration affect the wages of local workers? One way to answer this question is by exploiting a natural experiment. The Mariel boatlift of 1980 constituted an ideal experiment - bringing a sudden and large increase of low-skilled workers in just one city - but results are still hotly debated.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 5, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Substance requirements for financial firms moving out from the UK

In the run-up to Brexit, UK-based financial firms are considering how to organize their operations across the future divide between the UK and EU27. This event will discuss the regulatory requirements on how self-sustaining the operations in the EU should be, and implications for the single market and third countries.

Speakers: Gerry Cross, Simon Gleeson and Nicolas Véron Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 2, 2017
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Inclusive growth: global and European lessons for Spain

Can manufacturing still be a driver for inclusive growth around the world? What European and national policies can foster inclusive growth in Europe? What is the situation in Spain and what can Spain learn from the global and European experiences?

Speakers: Cristina Cabrera, Zsolt Darvas, Maria Demertzis, Alejandra Kindelán, Robert Lawrence and Federico Steinberg Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Global Economics & Governance Location: Calle Los Madrazo 36-38 Madrid Date: May 31, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Pharmaceutical industry at risk from Brexit

Pharmaceuticals are a hugely important industry for the EU and the UK. The sector creates thousands of jobs, billions of euros in exports, and is Europe’s most research-intense industry. But will Brexit mean for pharma? Border delays, disruption to R&D and regulatory divergence all pose hazards.

By: Jianwei Xu Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 31, 2017
Read article More on this topic


How the G20 should change its approach to migration and development in Africa

The G20 is redesigning its Africa strategy. Meanwhile, migration from Africa is an increasingly controversial topic in European politics, even though total flows are stable. Many hope that economic development in Africa will reduce migration pressures. But many African countries are so poor that increased wealth will actually accelerate emigration - by giving people the means to leave. The EU should support economic development in Africa, but Europe also needs to realise that migration from Africa is likely to increase in the coming years.

By: Guntram B. Wolff and Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 30, 2017
Load more posts