UK Expats in the EU: Brexit Impact


This article was first published in August 2016, pre-dating changes to post-Brexit immigration rules. 

British citizens living and working elsewhere in the EU, and the organisations that employ them, have even greater cause for concern than their UK-based counterparts about the impact of Brexit. While much of the Brexit discourse has centred on the rights of EU citizens in Britain, UK expats in the EU are also facing considerable uncertainty as to their future immigration status.

The UK Government has been criticised for declining to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Although this silence causes understandable distress to EU citizens in the UK, strategically it has merit.

The Government will not provide the guarantee without first receiving similar guarantees from the remaining 27 EU states, with respect to UK citizens abroad.

As the UK enters critical negotiations with the EU on trade, immigration and other issues, the UK Government will not want to enter those negotiations having already guaranteed the rights of EU citizens, which may become a significant bargaining chip.

Significant numbers

According to United Nations data, in 2015 there were 1.2 million UK-born people living elsewhere in the EU.

Most live in Spain, followed by France, Ireland, Germany, Cyprus, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Bulgaria.

It is difficult to anticipate the outcome of negotiations with Europe.

The UK may leave the EU and join the European Economic Area (EEA) or the Economic Free Trade Area (EFTA). If this happens, UK citizens will retain their rights of freedom of movement throughout the EU. So will EU citizens throughout the UK.

The alternative is that the UK will need to negotiate new agreements with the EU as a whole, or with the various countries individually.

The key for any employer seeking to prosper in the uncertain future is to identify and take steps to mitigate potential risks.

When the UK parts ways with the EU, expat workers based in the EU may need to apply for work permits to live and work in the EU. Here we outline some of the visas available in popular EU countries for workers from outside of the EEA.

The EU Blue Card

Non-EEA citizens can apply for the European Union Blue Card, which is recognised across all EEA countries except Denmark, Ireland and the UK.

To obtain a Blue Card, applicants must:

  • have a higher education qualification that took at least three years to complete or have a minimum of five years experience in their industry; and
  • have already secured a job offer or contract with a salary at least 1.5 times the average annual salary in the country they wish to work in.

There are other requirements related to health insurance, security and verification of qualifications.

In addition to holding a Blue Card, non-EEA citizens must also apply for a visa in their intended country of residence.

Blue Card holders can travel to other EU states for up to three months within any six-month period.

In addition to Blue Cards, each country also has its own visa application process.

Working in Ireland

Irish organisations seeking to employ people from outside of the EEA have a range of visa options available.

Most commonly, employers or employees can obtain a General Employment Permit from the Department of Jobs, Enterprises and Innovation.

The applicant must have a job offer for a role paying more than EUR 30,000 though this may be reduced to EUR 27,000 in some circumstances.

The applicant must be suitably qualified and the employer must demonstrate that the ‘labour market needs test’ has been met. This requires the employer to place an advertisement on an EU job site for two weeks, a national newspaper for three days and a local newspaper for three days.

The employer must demonstrate the steps it has taken to find a suitable candidate and that the prospective non-EEA employee is sufficiently skilled and qualified for the vacancy.

Additionally, the Irish employer must show that 50% of its workforce is from within the EEA.

A visa is issued initially for two years, and can be extended for a further three years.

Alternatively, if a non-EEA citizen secures a job in Ireland with a salary greater than EUR 60,000 (or EUR 30,000 if the occupation is highly skilled or in demand) they may be able to apply for a Critical Skills permit.

Working in Spain

In Spain, employers seeking to employ a non-EEA citizen must submit an application to the provincial office of the Ministry of Labour (Delagacion Provincial de Ministerio de Trabajo e Inmigracion) for a work permit.

Again, the job must feature on Spain’s Shortage Occupation List or be advertised within the EU for a sufficient period.

If a work permit is approved, the application must then be sent to the Spanish embassy or consulate as part or a Work and Residence Visa application. The process can take up to eight months.

Work permits are valid for one year and are renewable as long as the applicant remains working in the field.

There are some categories of professionals not required to apply for a work permit. These include university professors, technicians, scientists, foreign journalists, artists performing at a specific performance, clergy and trade union officials. These exempt applicants may still need a visa to enter the country, though.

There are simplified rules for au pairs or seasonal workers from outside of the EEA.

These are just a few of the visas available within EU countries for non-EEA workers. We are experienced advisers to both employers and employees on EU immigration status. If you have any queries relating to EU work permits, UK expats’ right to work in the EU or any other Brexit immigration concern, please contact us.


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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