Bring back free(er) movement: why Britain's services sector needs a lighter-touch EU travel policy

Tue 25 May 2021
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
IOE News

marco forgione

The UK’s trade deal with the EU allows Britons to spend 90 out of every 180 days in Europe on business trips. But beyond this, the devil is in the detail, argues Marco Forgione, director general of the Institute of Export & International Trade

After the lows of lockdown and the mood swings of the reopening and closing again, for the first time in over a year it looks like the country may be on a steady course to return to something like normality over the next few months.

The shifting of so much nonessential activity online worked better than many believed possible and at least some of our new ways of working seem set to become long term features of our lives. But, as it stands, there are things that won’t last much past the middle of the year.

Colleagues unseen

First, business travel will start to return. Of course, for some roles, those essential to keeping industry supplied and shop shelves stacked, travel never stopped. But for many it has been fourteen months of customers and partners unvisited and, for many, of colleagues unseen – or only down the lens of a Teams call. What was once often wearisome has been missed by many.

But since we last hopped on a plane Britain’s place in the world or at least its relationship with its nearest neighbours has, for better or worse, changed dramatically. The end of the transition period and the coming into force of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement has changed the rules of the game for business travel.

Small print

While the headline terms of the TCA included a proviso that UK citizens could spend 90 out of every 180 days in the EU on business (more than enough to satisfy most business travellers) the small print – specifically the rules around what you can actually do once you are there – are much more constraining. In fact, in most cases that headline right will only cover business meetings. Delivering any sort of service is liable to be subject to restrictions.

Forbidden in France

Even more frustratingly, they are going to be different in each country, so what might be allowed in Germany will be forbidden in France. The UK government has published a collection of the guidance (available here) produced by other governments, relating their business visa requirements, carve outs and in some cases how they are interpreting the TCA.

It is a good first stop, but in many cases, companies will need to look at the immigration websites of the countries that their employees will be travelling to and may need to apply – sometimes well in advance – for work visas. 

Hitting services sector

This significant change to business travel will impact the services sector, on which the UK economy is so dependent – the UK exported nearly £317bn worth of services in 2019 making us by some measures the world’s second biggest exporter of services after the US - and our manufacturing sector. Many of our leading manufacturers are dependent on the service contracts and agreements which are integral to their product sales.

There are many elements of trade, fiscal and financial policy which will change over the coming year as the government and wider economy emerge from the pandemic’s grip. A key proposal in the IOE&IT’s policy advice paper, Policy Platform, published in April, is the creation of a cross-departmental trade committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

Sustainable travel

So much of the service sector is about building relationships and establishing a deep understanding of needs. As such a key challenge the government faces is, how to get business travel going again. In doing so neither business nor government can ignore the need for sustainable approaches to international business and trade.

As we reshape the U.K. economy in response to the pandemic and our new independent trading status, the government has to prioritise international trade. This includes the provision of trade facilitations and regulatory easements for the UK’s vital services sector.