Benjamin Disraeli once said: “England is unrivalled for two things – sport and politics.” Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (“EU”), the world of sport and politics may once again be on a path to further entanglement.
One of the founding principles provided to the world of sport, by the EU, is the free movement of people. The free movement of people includes the right to move freely and reside around the EU, and most importantly the right to work and be treated on an equal footing with other EU citizens. As a result, this cornerstone principle permitted every EU sports man or woman to earn and live in the UK without having to obtain a work permit. Conversely, non-EU citizens have had to undertake a much more complicated work permit process before they are able to enjoy the rights akin to their European sporting counterparts. In the instance of football, this means meeting the Home Office’s specific criteria which requires non-EU citizens to have successfully applied for a Governing Body Endorsement with the FA before a work permit can be issued. If the UK left the EU without replicating the existing system in place for sports men and women within the EU, then inevitably and especially in the world of football, this will impact the transfer market with either a reduction in EU footballers moving to the UK and/or an increase of transfer fees for non-EU players.
EU rulings by the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) has shaped the world of sport we live in and if you take football as an example, the Bosman ruling provided players the right to move freely within the EU following the end of their contract. Nevertheless, whilst the UK may no longer need to recognise decisions made by the ECJ post-Brexit, it is very unlikely that the UK will not continue to operate a system which conforms to the status quo and continues the operation of Bosman transfers.
Brexit may also have an impact upon the ability of UK football clubs to sign under 18 players from the EU. Article 19 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players prohibits international transfers for those under the age of 18 except in limited circumstances. For example, if a transfer takes place in the EU or the European Economic Area (“EEA”), then the age criteria for the player in question is reduced to the age of 16. This has allowed a huge number of players under the age of 16 to be transferred across the EU and has subsequently provided UK football clubs the opportunity to develop and invest in young players who may go onto provide a significant return on investment. Therefore not being able to sign a player until they have reached the age of eighteen may adversely affect UK football clubs both financially and competitively (by losing out on a young EU player to a rival EU club). However, subject to negotiations that will take place between the UK and EU, the UK may still remain within the EEA which will consequently mean that UK football clubs will still benefit from the Article 19 exception.
Until Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered by the UK Government, which will in turn open up a two-year negotiation period with the EU, the real impact upon sport in the UK remains unclear. However, given the commercial value provided by UK sport, it is envisaged that the benefits provided by EU legislation will be replicated either domestically or through bilateral agreements to ensure the continuity and growth of UK sport.
At this moment in time, UK sport must ultimately sit tight and await the outcome of the negotiations to take place between the EU and the UK – nevertheless it would be prudent, given the short two-year window to negotiate Brexit, to consider alternative commercial strategies to minimise any potential negative consequences that may arise during or following the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU.