By Mark F Watts
Image: Access denied to the e-gates at airports and Eurostar will be one of many new barriers placed in the way of UK business travellers in the new year. ( © European Union, 2020)
Even when the latest mutant COVID travel bans to the Continent are lifted, and whatever the outcome of the current Brexit trade talks, from 11pm GMT on 31 December 2020 you will no longer just be able to just hop on a Eurostar, a plane, or take the car to reach the Continent for a business trip. British nationals will no longer have an automatic right to work or provide services in the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, so even a short business trip will take careful planning. The assumption that as long as you stay for less than 90 days, and have a valid passport, you will still enjoy the right to travel for work is I’m afraid misplaced.
‘We take back control of our borders, but they also take back control of theirs.’
Leaving the EU, and terminating the UK’s participation in the Customs Union and Single Market, ends the guarantee of free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour between the UK and the EU. But that’s a double edge sword of course. We take back control of our borders, but they also take back control of theirs.
Moreover, all those fiendishly complex non-tariff barriers, such as those pesky barriers to entry, those insidious anti-competitive practices, and above all those ever-changing bureaucratic regulations, forms, inspections, and fines that we all thought were behind us thanks to the Single Market (which we Brits ironically pushed for) are now going to return with a vengeance. A trade deal may eliminate tariffs and quotas for all goods, but it’s extremely unlikely to cover more than a few services, so many of these practices will be legit, deal or no deal.
Yes, the EU and the UK have agreed that UK citizens can enjoy visa-free travel to the EU after the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, meaning UK citizens would not need a visa when travelling to the Schengen area for short stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period. However, this does not necessarily apply to business travellers, as I explain below.
As well as the actions all travellers need to take, there are extra actions you need to take if you’re travelling to the EU for business. Business travel includes activities such as travelling for meetings and conferences, providing services even with a charity, and touring art or music.
‘UK citizens would not need a visa when travelling to the Schengen area for short stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period. However, this does not necessarily apply to business travellers’
I’m sure even some of the new checks applied to all travellers will come as a bit of a shock to seasoned European business travellers, after years of borderless travel. No more use of the automatic e-gates used by EU nationals at airports and Eurostar terminals. When you reach the passport control you can be asked a number of questions in order to justify your trip. For example you could be asked about the purpose and conditions of an intended stay, the duration of your visit, what activities that you will carry out, who will meet the costs of travel and subsistence, and if on business, the details of where you are normally employed. You may even be asked to show your return ticket or have the financial means to purchase one. All this could add on average one hour to your queueing queuing time.
In addition the country you’re travelling to might have its own entry requirements or ask you to have certain additional documents. The French Government have issued useful guidance. It may be sensible for business travellers to carry with them a letter which explains all of this.
‘Visa-free travel will generally only be possible for UK passport holders for a limited number of permitted business activities’
The EU will also be monitoring trips to ensure you stay within the limit of no more than 90 days in each 180 days. So if you may get close to reaching the total of the 90-day limit you should keep a record of your visits to aSchengen area country, which will include both business travel and leisure travel, as both will count towards the 90-day limit. To assist passports will also be stamped on entry and exit to Schengen area countries.
The day count applies on a rolling basis and across the Schengen area as a whole. Different rules will apply to Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania. If you visit these countries, visits to other EU countries will not count towards the 90-day total. Conditions for business travel to the Republic of Ireland remain the same.
Even if you are allowed to travel there may well be a whole host of other requirements, restrictions and even prohibitions that apply.
Visa-free travel will generally only be possible for UK passport holders for a limited number of permitted business activities, and each European company can define what these permitted business activities are, so you may need a visa for business travel depending on the activities you will carry out.
Many countries will also stipulate that you need a work permit if you intend to carry out any work, even if for less than 90 days, for example the guidance issued by the Government of the Netherlands. It’s therefore just as important to consider the reason for travel and the activities being carried out, as well as the length of any stay. The proposed activities of the business traveller will be key here rather than the duration or frequency of travel, meaning a one-day trip could be as problematic as a three-month trip.
You will need to have your UK professional qualification officially recognised if you want to work in a profession that is regulated in the EEA or Switzerland. It will need to be recognised by the appropriate regulator for your profession in each country where you intend to work. You’ll need to do this even if you’re providing temporary or occasional professional services. Check the European Commission’s Regulated Professions Database (REGPROF) to find out if your profession is regulated. Then contact the single point of contact for each EEA country, to find out how to get your professional qualification recognised.
‘a one-day trip could be as problematic as a three-month trip’
The Withdrawal Agreement provides certain continuity. So if you have had a professional qualification recognised under the EU legislation listed in the Withdrawal Agreement by the regulator in the member state in which you live or work, you will keep the right to practise your profession in that member state.
If you are outside the scope of the Withdrawal Agreement you will need to check the rules in the member state in which you want to work after the transition period.
The UK will no longer operate under the European Economic Area (EEA) regulations for the cross-border trade in services from 1 January 2021, so this means that the rights and protections provided by the EU Directives, and EU Treaty rights of freedom of movement and freedom of establishment will no longer apply to the UK. UK businesses will no longer be treated as if they are local businesses. Services provided by UK businesses and professionals will be regarded as originating from a ‘third country.’ Even the UK Government’s website admits ‘UK firms and service providers may face additional legal, regulatory and administrative barriers as a result.’
For example, if you are a UK business providing services in Austria, you’ll need to follow Austrian regulations about getting authorisations or licences to provide a service, complying with specific local business regulations. Their Business Services Portal can help you to find out what you need to know about providing services in Austria, understand local regulations, complete the relevant administrative procedures online and help with appointing an English-speaking lawyer in Austria to help you comply with specific regulations. In addition, Austria may have regulated sectors where European Economic Area (EEA) nationality requirements could even prevent you from providing services. Even if you do overcome these hurdles, and meet these requirements, in order to provide professional services in Austria you may still have to have one of the following: an Austrian photo ID card, Austrian nationality, a valid residency permit and for regulated trades you must also get a trade licence.
Workers who do not have permits could face fines of between €10,000 and €20,000 for non compliance, and in some countries like Austria fines could go up to €50,000.
‘The biggest challenge will be navigating the range and complexity of each Countries own specific requirements, which may rapidly change, and be subject to delays, inconsistencies, uneven interpretation and application by local officials and border guards.’
In light of the current COVID-19 restrictions this may all be a bit academic for a while. Travel for business from the UK to the EU/EEA is probably not going to be possible for most trips. The EU has opened its internal borders in most cases, it has decided that only certain categories of travellers could be authorised for entry from third-countries, such as diplomats or health workers. The EU has also granted exemptions to certain third-countries in light of their epidemiological situation, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and China, but it’s unlikely the UK will be granted an exemption.
Life for British business travellers to Europe is going to get a lot more complex. The biggest challenge will be navigating the range and complexity of each Countries own specific requirements, driven more by local political considerations rather than UK-EU economic interests. They may also change rapidly, and be subject to inconsistencies, uneven interpretation and application by local officials and border guards. Those of us who have been dealing with the complaints from EU and third-country professionals over the years, believe it will be these non-tariff barriers that will be the biggest challenge to UK businesses seeking to work or provide services in the EU.
The challenge of navigating these new business hurdles will be unprecedented.
Of course, some will argue that business travellers from much of the rest of the world, have successfully navigated these requirements for years. That’s true, but none of those trade relationships compare to the sheer scale,depth, and complexity of the UK’s relationship with the EU, which has built up over not just the past 47 years, but for centuries, in light of our geographical proximity. For example, our trade with Belgium and the Netherlands is bigger than our trade with the entire Commonwealth put together. So the challenge of navigating these hurdles for business travellers will be unprecedented.
In the ultimate irony is that for years some UK citizen’s complained about EU red tape, but now they will have to contend not just with with EU red tape, but in addition the different red tape of the 30 European countries. The limits of national sovereignty in an interdependent world are about to be exposed. The EU isn’t perfect, but one of its greatest achievements is turning many divergent national rules into one for its members.
You don’t know what you’ve go till it’s gone.
The situation will fast become intolerable for a modern industrialised trading nation situated on the edge of the World’s largest market. So I hope 2021 will mark the beginning of a new relationship with the EU. We need to put behind us the rancour of the current negotiations, and enter into a new spirit of co-operation. One that will foster the closest possible mutually advantageous relationship, in order to facilitate the eradication of many of these new barriers.
So good luck, let me know how you get on with your next business trip to the EU. Or maybe you’ll just decide that Zoom isn’t so bad after all!
Check each country’s business travel advice pages for more information.
Countries that belong to the EEA include the EU 27 plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
The 26 Schengen countries are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Contact me if you would like to share your experience or learn more.
Mark Watts is Director of LP Brussels and a former two-term Member of the European Parliament. He has been advising organisations and businesses on EU transport, energy and environment policy for over sixteen years. He writes in a personal capacity.