The United Kingdom joined the European Union’s predecessor—the European Economic Community—in 1973. Since then, the EU has become the largest market in the world. A cornerstone of the EU is the development of a Single Market that allows people, goods, services, and capital to move freely within its borders. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), one of two foundational EU treaties, guarantees the freedom of movement of workers in Article 45. Under this principle, EU sportsmen and women move freely between European sports clubs without permits that non-EU citizens require.

On June 23, 2016, voters in the United Kingdom decisively decided in the Brexit referendum to leave the European Union. The right-wing populist UK Independence Party, UKIP, spearheaded the “Leave” campaign that argued for a UK exit from the union. Nigel Farage, a UKIP Member in the European Parliament, argued that freedom of movement within the EU was not only bad for the British economy because EU migrants were taking British jobs and depressing wages, but that these migrants were often dangerous. Post-Brexit commentators pointed out that the desire to control immigration likely was a major motivating factor for pro-Brexit votes.

For the UK to leave the EU, the British government must follow procedures set out in Article 50; triggering Article 50 would begin negotiations between the UK and the EU. A recent ruling by Britain’s High Court that the parliament must vote on whether to leave the EU could delay the UK’s exit, but prime minister Theresa May has been clear that the UK will begin negotiations to leave within a year. Leaving the European Union will mean the end of the freedom of movement of workers and, given the importance of anti-immigration to pro-Brexit voters, it seems likely that Theresa May’s government will establish policies restricting immigration into Britain.

But what does this mean for professional sport in the UK? Three of Britain’s most popular sports—soccer, rugby, and cricket—have long relied on drawing talent from outside the UK’s borders. The Premier League’s roster is filled with non-British Europeans, and many talented native British soccer players have contracts with top European teams. Before the referendum, the Premier League’s Richard Scudamore, one of the most powerful people in British sports, advocated to remain in the EU because of the negative impact Brexit could have on recruiting and cultivating European talent.

Two decisions issued by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have allowed EU players to move freely between European clubs and struck down attempts by national teams to impose quotas setting the maximum number of foreign players in each team. In Bosman, the ECJ interpreted the freedom of movement to mean that national leagues could not enact policy restrictions on foreign EU players and EU players could move to another club at the end of a contract without a transfer fee being paid. In Kolpak, the ECJ held that citizens of non-EU countries that have entered into European Union Association Agreements with the EU have the same rights to freedom of work and movement as EU citizens. UK sports clubs, particularly rugby and cricket, have long relied on these rules.

It is possible that British sports teams will put pressure on Theresa May’s government to negotiate treaties with the EU that will continue to allow British teams to attract and employ EU sportsmen and women easily. The UK could also enter into bilateral agreements with non-EU countries. Rugby, cricket, and soccer are both incredibly popular and lucrative, and corporate leaders and citizens alike have significant incentives to make recruiting outside talent as easy as possible. But there are those who favor more restrictive regulations on non-British players, arguing that the EU’s freedom of movement limited Britain’s ability to attract talent outside the EU. They also argue that EU freedom of movement stifled the cultivation of home-grown talent. Perhaps Brexit will lead to the implementation of national quotas and less nationally diverse UK sports teams.

It remains to be seen when the UK will begin the process of leaving the EU and what position Theresa May’s government will take regarding visas for sportsmen and women. Only time will tell what treaties and regulations will govern sports employment law in the UK in a post-Brexit world.

Rachel Johnson


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