LONDON – Members of parliament scrutinizing the Brexit process have called for a standalone agreement to be made to protect the rights of EU27 nationals living in the U.K. and British citizens in mainland Europe as soon as negotiations on the terms of the U.K.'s exit from the EU begin.
An agreement on reciprocal rights should be reached as a matter of priority and be a separate deal that is not dependent on any other exit arrangements or trade deals, MPs on the parliamentary committee on Exiting the European Union said in a report published on Tuesday.
"It would be unconscionable for the more than 4 million people in these groups to find themselves living in a state of uncertainty about their futures until negotiations are complete," the report said.
Following that, post-Brexit, the government must design an immigration system that allows students and staff to come to U.K. universities and ensure U.K. nationals can still take part in EU-funded work and study exchange schemes and in the €77 billion (US$82 billion) EU R&D program Horizon 2020 and its successor.
In addition, the system of mutual recognition of professional qualifications that exists currently must be maintained. A total of 338,000 people secured cross-border recognition of their credentials from 2004 to 2014.
The Russell Group, which represents the U.K.'s 24 leading research universities called on the government to take those recommendations seriously.
"Pulling up the drawbridge after Brexit would take U.K. science and research backwards," said Jessica Cole, Russell Group head of policy.
That was echoed by Julia Goodfellow, vice chancellor of Kent University and president of Universities-UK, which represents all U.K. universities, who said the government needs to take "immediate steps" to provide reassurance to EU nationals currently working in the university sector on their rights to reside and work in the U.K. post-exit.
The issue of safeguarding the rights of EU27 nationals has been the number one priority of U.K. universities and science-based companies since the referendum result to leave the EU was announced in June.
It was again the major concern when Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 that gets exit negotiations under way. In the letter to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, triggering the process, she made it clear that regaining control of immigration is nonnegotiable.
An analysis published last month by the Royal Society based on an EU database of the mobility of highly skilled people from 2004 to 2014 shows what is at stake. The U.K. currently dominates all EU member states in terms of incoming skills and draws on the largest number of countries.
For the Russell Group, EU27 nationals account for 22,800 staff, or 14 percent of the workforce.
The 58,000 EU27 students at the 24 universities account for 14 percent of the student body. At the U.K.'s leading university, Oxford, 18 percent of staff and 16 percent of students are from the EU27. In total, 130,000 EU27 students were enrolled at U.K. universities in the 2016-2017 academic year.
The attractiveness of U.K. higher education and research not only strengthens the science base, it also is a huge source of soft power when students return home after completing their degrees and academics move onto new posts.
Setting out his priorities for the Brexit negotiations, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust – the charity will spend £5 billion (US$6.2 billion) on research in the next five years, most of it in the U.K. – said people from the EU27 who live and work in the U.K. must be made to feel welcome and stay, so that individuals and institutions have the confidence and stability to plan ahead. He called also for a "simple, swift" post-Brexit immigration system for skilled researchers and technicians.
The Royal Society research on EU high skills migration shows the U.K. has had the largest brain gain of medical professionals of any member state. On the triggering of Article 50 health care organizations repeated a previous plea to the government to recognize the rights of 135,000 EU27 nationals working in the National Health Service (NHS) and the social care system.
The chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), Mark Porter, said there is "profound and gnawing uncertainty" now that preparations to negotiate Brexit are getting underway.
"[This] is felt most acutely, of course, by our European colleagues, but also by the whole of the health service that would collapse without their contribution," Porter said.
A BMA survey of 1,193 EU doctors working in the NHS conducted earlier this year, found 42 percent are thinking of leaving as a result of the Brexit vote.
Following the triggering of Article 50 by the U.K. government, the EU has outlined its negotiating position. That must now be approved by heads of state at a meeting on April 29, with negotiations expected to start in June and conclude in November 2018. That will give time for the European parliament and national parliaments to ratify the terms before the U.K. formally leaves the EU in March 2019.
Although that is seen as a very tight timeline, the negotiations may to some extent be simplified by the "Great Repeal Bill" published by the U.K. government last week, under which all existing EU statutes will be converted to domestic law.
As a result, all regulations relating to drug approvals, conducting clinical trials or European patents, for example, will remain in line with those of the EU (at least initially). The government said its aim in that legal rewiring will be to maintain stability and certainty and ensure no new barriers to doing business are created.
However, as the parliamentary committee noted, there are difficult issues to finesse, in particular where regulations require enforcement by an EU regulatory body such as EMA.
"The U.K. would need to determine whether it wished to continue to follow the decisions of an EU agency or set up its own certification process," the committee said.