Brexit and the European Football Market: The Consequences for the Premier League and the British Players

by Rita de Sousa Costa, law student at UMinho
and Tiago Sérgio Cabral, law student at UMinho

The results of the referendum held in Great Britain on the 23rd of June of 2016 shall certainly change the course of history. On this day “Brexit” trumped “Bremain” by 52% against 48% with a turnout of about 72%. And while the results of the referendum are not binding it does seem that the British government plans to respect the will of the voters.

Leaving the EU will affect not only the economy but every single aspect of the lives of the British people, including sports. The British love sports, mainly football, and Britain, more precisely England has one of most competitive football leagues in the world: the Premier League. Nigel Farage a top UK politician and one of the most prominent leave supporters said in April:

What this referendum is about is taking back control of our lives, our laws and our borders”.

However, we must ask ourselves what are the consequences of “taking back our laws and borders” for the Premier League?

Farage is a supporter of Crystal Palace, whose team is composed of 32 players, and 12 of those players are not British. Manchester United, the winner of the FA Cup, regularly plays with 7 non-British players on its line-up even if in total it has more than 50% British players on its roster. How will the Premier League survive after Brexit? Will its teams agree with Farage’s statement “outside of this single market we will be better off” (here)?

Well, not even Mr Farage believes that the UK will be better off outside of the single market (here). For the teams in the Premier League life is about to get much harder. No other football league in the world moves as much money as the Premier League (in player transferences and TV rights) and no other league in the world has so many international players.

The future of the Premier League hinges on the answer to a few rather unpredictable questions: a) Will the “divorce” between the UK and the EU be an amicable one? The first signs point to trouble. The EU politicians seem determined to take a hard stance on the negotiations with the British (here) and both David Cameron and Nigel Farage fled the ship, leaving Britain in a political turmoil. Boris Johnson “went missing” when the UK needed a new Prime-Minister and then came back as the Foreign Secretary in Theresa May’s cabinet. Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood from the British and American versions of House of Cards respectively would be proud. b) Will the Premier League change its internal rules? c) How will the remaining European Football leagues receive the players from the UK from now on?

 How it Works Right Now

The current legal framework in accordance with the article 45 of the TFEU (regarding the free movement of workers) and with the landmark CJEU decision Bosman (here) bans any discrimination against players who are nationals of other Member States. Non-EU players are limited by quotas. The quotas are based on the FIFA ranking of their home country and the number of times that they played for their national team. However, for extraordinary players, an exception may be made, even if they do not meet the criteria. If the UK leaves the EU the players from EU Member States will become foreign players and using the exception for extraordinary players as the rule does not look like a viable option. Therefore, we shall analyse the other options.

The Full Break-Up Scenario

In this hypothesis, the players from the EU Member States would be subject to the same rules as any other player. According to the Guardian “two-thirds of European stars in England wouldn’t meet the criteria used for other overseas players to automatically get a work visa” (161 players from the EU and the EEA). This group includes renowned players like De Gea, Juan Mata, or Mangala.

The situation could get even more complicated if Scotland or the Northern Ireland left the UK and joined the EU (here) making the players from those countries also foreign players in the Premier League.

Protecting the Premier League in a Full-Break Scenario

The FA could change its rules and protect the football players from the “break-up” between the UK and the EU. However, such a solution is not without its difficulties. It would be unacceptable to allow free movement of workers just for professional football. The other areas of activity would not remain quiet on the face of such discrimination. Furthermore if only the players from the EU were exempt from the “quotas” we would have first class foreign players from the EU and second class foreign players from the rest of the world.

EEA Agreement

The UK could leave the EU without leaving the European Economic Area. If that happened the free movement of persons, workers, services and capital would be assured. However, ending the free movement of persons and workers was the banner of the Brexit campaign, with a side of 1900’s xenophobia. Besides, with this solution the UK would still need to contribute to the EU’s budget (here) and would need to apply European legislation without a formal say in how it is shaped. Norway warned the UK before the referendum of the consequences of leaving (here).

About the British Players Playing in the EU

The Premier League won’t be the only one affected by Brexit. Some others football leagues also have “quotas” for non-EU players. One such case is the Spanish Football League (La Liga) where a team can only have three non-EU players (jugadores extracomunitarios). A full break-up could mean trouble for teams like Real Madrid. On its squad, Real Madrid already has 3 non-EU players Casemiro, James and Danilo, but it also has Gareth Bale from Wales. If the UK left the EU in a full break-up scenario would not be able to use one of those players in LaLiga only in UEFA competitions like the Champions League where such restrictions do not exist. That would most likely mean that one of those players would need to leave the team.

No one really knows if there will be an agreement between the EU and the UK. If there is one, it may be less broad than and EEA agreement. In the hypothesis of such agreement including the free movement of workers, we should look at the CJEU’s Simutènkov decision (here). In this landmark sports verdict, the Court decided that a Russian footballer playing on Club Deportivo Tenerife should have the same labour rights as the citizens from a Member State. The CJEU based its decision on the article 23, n 1, of the Communities-Russia Partnership Agreement (here).

Final Thoughts on the Matter

The results of the British referendum left the international community in shock. Even the British might be having a small case of “voters” remorse since the top Google search queries in Britain hours after the results were public were “What does it mean to leave the EU”, “What is the EU”, “Which countries are in the EU”, “What will happen now we’ve left the EU” and “How many countries are in the EU” (here). In fact, we’d argue that only then the British started to really understand what leaving the EU entails. It is not only about “taking back our borders”. It will negatively affect every aspect of their lives, it may even break the UK, and it will certainly harm their favourite sport.

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