Given that the Brexit debate has been fixated on issues such as the backstop, customs union and single market, businesses have perhaps overlooked one particular element of our relationship with the EU that may cause them a headache right now. Intriguingly, government seems to have overlooked it as well.
Passport? Check. Ticket? Check. Meeting collateral? Check. Form A1? Er, excuse me… What the…?
Hands up if you know what a Form A1 is? No? Well, you are not alone.
For years, businesses have blithely been sending representatives around the EU by train, plane and automobile completely oblivious to the need for any documentation at any border they may cross.
And why should they? Don’t we have freedom of movement as an EU member? When businesses post workers in the EU, as it’s known, the answer is no, and we never have had.
Bizarrely, business travellers have always – ALWAYS – needed to carry with them a form called the A1 (once known as the E-101) which is required in order to work in another EU member state for as little as one day.
You can bet your bottom dollar/euro that, post-Brexit, A1 will figure large in all our lives. And, as I say, it has always been required. It’s just that no one has ever bothered to ask for it.
Richard Halstead, a strategic manufacturing consultant who dealt with such issues when he was at EEF, told me it is quite astonishing that even government has virtually no grasp on the A1 problem.
“Form A1 is signed by your employer to prove that you, as an employee, pay national insurance here in the UK,” he said.
“Therefore, when you go to Germany on business, which even for a few days is technically called a ‘posting’, you don’t need to pay into their social security equivalent, because A1 says you’re already paying NI in the UK.
“Now, the government stats on posting of workers initially said there were about 40,000 a year. EEF has two large members that reckon between them they already have 120,000 postings a year! So, there’s a massive movement of people that is going to become complex.”
For some companies, it has already started. Some manufacturing representatives have already been turned back at EU national borders because they didn’t have form A1.
It was French immigration police that did it on this occasion, but this is clearly just the thin end of a very large wedge. And as we shall see, it is one we could have avoided.
For now, Richard Halstead recommends businesses add Form A1 to the list of regulatory chores they have to get done before 29 March. Or whenever.
“Let’s assume the worst case, and it’s a no-deal Brexit,” he told me, “which we certainly do not want, and EEF are lobbying government for it not to happen. But if it is a no-deal Brexit, or a limited agreement Brexit, then what we have in terms of Europe, is 27 states, each of whom have their own visa structure and immigration policies – immigration is not part of EU policy, remember.
“So, if you wanted, as I know some companies do, to fly into Geneva via Easyjet from Luton, then hire a car, and head off to France, Germany, Belgium, and maybe come back through the Channel Tunnel, then they’re going to need four sets of immigration documents – visas, to go through those four territories. It suddenly becomes quite complex.
“My advice to businesses, therefore, even before Brexit, is if you’re sending workers abroad, download Form A1 off the government website, fill it out, and arm them with it. It’s just a safety net, just in case.”
Blue card? No thank you
It is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to anyone who has become jaded over the past few months and years as the UK and EU stumble, locked in a death embrace, towards a doom-laden future, that this could have been avoided all along.
Some time ago, the European Commission sought to consign Form A1 to history. It is one of those anomalies that ever so slightly tarnishes the purity of freedom of movement and would have been particularly useful for travellers from outside the EU coming to do business here.
Given that this will include the UK post-Brexit, such a reduction in red tape would prove most welcome. No?
“The EU did try and establish what they called a blue card, I think it was,” Richard told me.
“This would have allowed somebody going into the EU to fill in just one set of visa and immigration forms and then go freely around the EU. Wouldn’t that make sense? Particularly for us in the future?
“Well, they tried to put that through legislation with the EU, and sadly one of the 28 members at the time voted against it. You’ll never believe which member voted.
“At this point, may I invite you to hold your head in your hands in preparation for me telling you which government it was that vetoed this exemplary piece of proposed legislation. You have already guessed, of course, that it was the United Kingdom.
“So, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot!” Richard Halstead said. “We’ll have total complexity of movement of people upon a no-deal Brexit.”
Of course, this may all be cleared up in negotiations towards a future trade deal with the EU, but given that the government had not the faintest clue about how many people travel across the EU on business until EEF told them, it is hard to have confidence about this being a priority.
So, as the man said, better be prepared and download A1. Now. And this is where to get it.