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Brexit and EU law: Beyond the Premier League (Part 1). By Marine Montejo

Editor's note: Marine Montejo is a graduate from the College of Europe in Bruges and is currently an intern at the ASSER International Sports Law Centre.

The result of the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016 took the European Union (almost) by surprise. A lot has been said and written about the impact of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. As in all other areas, the British sport sector will also face the effects of the modification of the relationship between the EU and its (probable) former Member State, the UK. It is nearly impossible to foresee all consequences as the UK has not even triggered article 50 TFEU yet to officially start the exit negotiations. However, as the UK position toward the EU will change in any case, this two-part blog aims to examine the main practical implications of such an exit for the UK, but also for the EU, in relation to the actual application of EU law in sport and the EU sport policy.

Unless stated otherwise, the use of the terms Brexit in this blog should be understood as a complete exit of the UK from the European Union. This blog focus in particular on this worst case scenario and its consequences for UK sport. However, it is highly improbable that the future Brexit negotiations with the EU will end up without some kind of special agreement between the two parties the first of which being an EEA type of agreement with full access to the internal market and applicability of EU law. 

The first part of this blog will examined the consequences for UK sport in terms of access to the EU internal market and the applicability of free movement principles. The second part is focused on specific impacts with regard of others domain of EU law for professional and grassroots UK sport. 

Part 1. EU free movement and the internal market

The EU internal market and its free movement of people declination was at the centre of the Brexit referendum. The potential consequences for the Premier League and professional footballers have been commented upon thoroughly elsewhere. Yet, Brexit’s impact is not restricted to British sport’s leading product, such as the Premier League, nor solely the freedom of movement provisions.

The controversy: free movement of sportspeople

The right to free movement is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the EU to its citizens and it is at the core of EU treaties. It means that any direct or indirect discrimination based on nationality is prohibited (article 18 TFEU), leaving EU citizens free to exercise their right to move freely and reside within the territories of the 28 EU Members States (article 21 TFEU). These rights apply to both professional and amateur sportspeople, and Brexit will have consequences for them whether they are British citizens or from other Members States.

First, in relation to professional and semi-professional sportspeople, when looking for example at consequences of Brexit on the Premier League, it is the principle of free movement of workers (article 45 TFEU) that is at stake. It should be noted that Brexit will impact not only footballers but also all professional athletes that are considered as “workers” within the meaning of the Treaty. In this context, “workers” means those who are gainfully employed (as stated in 1976 by the European Court of Justice - ECJ - in the Donà and Mantero case, 13/76). These athletes might be rugby or basketball players in a professional clubs or cyclists in a team to give a few examples. Also, other individuals associated with sportspeople may rely on the provisions of free movement of workers, such as doctors, physiotherapists, stable staff, coaches or administrative staff. 

Free movement also currently applies to professional and semi-professional sportspeople that are not “workers”. Freedoms of establishment (article 49 TFEU) and provision of services (article 56 TFEU) apply to athletes that are self-employed (for example tennis players, sailors or horse riders) or to instructors, coaches, or physical trainers. Sports agents may also rely on both freedoms if they are established in another of the EU’s Members States and/or if they are providing their services during a player transfer for example. To illustrate these provisions with genuine practical cases, you may want to think of a UK tennis player that has established himself in France for training purposes for a long period, or of Italian professional horse rider coming to the UK to provide a couple of hours of training for a master class. These situations are much more common than one believes and Brexit might have an important impact on significant number of people working in the sport sector.

At the time of writing it is impossible to know (or even guess) how events will unfold or what the future position of the UK toward the EU will be after Brexit negotiations. The impact will have to be assessed depending on whether and, if so, how the UK will have access to the internal market. A few UK sports officials have raised their voices to recall, for example, the strong position of British football in Europe and asked for exception regimes for their players. Without intending to sound pessimistic, EU officials have already made it very clear that the UK may not pick and choose how they access the internal market and it is difficult to see how a “sport exemption” regarding free movement of athletes may be granted against any other sectors. A solution might be to implement national UK legislation giving free access to professional players to the UK labour market. A problem will however remain regarding free access to the EU market for UK players as, in that case, there is no obligation for the EU to grant reciprocity. If the professional and semi-professional sport sector in the UK (and in the EU as well for UK players) wishes to still be able to recruit athletes that are EU citizens after the exit as easily as it was before Brexit, it should advocate for an EEA agreement (“EEA type” - which seems inconsistent with the intended aims of the referendum as, in this situation, the UK would retain its access to the internal market but would give up its voting rights). 

In the worst case scenario of a complete exit from the EU, is there any good news for UK sport? British sports federations will be able to implement rules entailing direct discrimination, including introducing quotas of players based on nationality or favouring their own athletes which is, for now, completely forbidden under EU law. On the other hand, the return of visas and work permits between the UK and the EU might lessen the level of competition in national championships as it will hinder exchanges of athletes on both sides. It is quite unsure that this is the best option for British sport. Moreover, one should remember that non-discrimination is also granted to sportspeople coming from non-EU countries under the terms of agreements between the EU and third countries (Igor Simutenkov C-265/03). For example, under the terms of the Cotonou Agreements, it is impossible to impose nationality based quotas for sportsmen from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Group of States provided the player entered the territory of one of the Member States legally, which is a strict condition. This principle implies that a player coming from one of the countries covered by that agreement is not considered as a “foreign” player if quotas for such players are in force in that sport (this is the case for Rugby Union for example). It also means that the UK not only has to renegotiate its relationship with the EU but with all other non-EU countries that are, for now, covered by these association or partnership agreements. British sport will need to be cautious about it.

It should also be noted that Brexit will lead to the end of the mutual recognition of professional qualifications (see directive 2005/36). This principle applies in the sport sector as well whenever the possession of a diploma is legally required; Member States cannot refuse to permit EU citizens from other Member States to participate in a profession if they hold a recognised qualification from their country for working in that profession unless there are substantial differences in the level of qualification or duration of training. This applies to coaches (i.e. ski instructors) or doctors in the sport sector for example. Another very specific example is the European professional card (directive 2013/55/EU, applicable from 18 January 2016) that has been implemented for mountain guides (and physiotherapists) and allows for a simple and rapid recognition of professional qualifications. Consequences might be less important where an international sports governing body sets up its own set of qualifications (think about the UEFA Pro Licence for football coaches).

Free movement provisions likewise apply to amateur athletes. Based on a combined reading of articles 18, 21 and 165 TFEU, EU citizens who participate in an amateur sporting activity by using their right to free movement should not be discriminated on grounds of nationality. It is, once more, nearly impossible to currently illustrate the impact of Brexit with tangible facts but it means that free movement of EU citizens who are amateur athletes will be affected while coming to or from the UK for competition or training purposes. Furthermore, in terms of injuries or accidents while training or competing, it should be recalled that Brexit may affect the European health insurance system. This system gives every EU citizens access to state-provided healthcare during a stay in any of the EU countries under the same conditions as people insured in that country.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Brexit may impact upon the sport sector as it has links to EU citizenship. A complete Brexit will entail that sports supporters cannot travel as freely between the UK and the EU as they used to. Again, a return to a strict visa policy seems unlikely but giving up EU citizenship will have consequences on border and passport controls and on the organisation of sport events in the UK. The UK and the EU will also no longer be entitled to the cooperation organised against violence and hooliganism within the EU (Council Decision 2002/348/JHA, security at international football matches), or, at least, not in the same terms.

The underlying problem: free movement of goods

Free movement of goods is an essential element of the single market (articles 30, 34 and 35 TFEU) and it provides for the prohibition of measures that restrict trade between Member States, including not only customs duties and quantitative restrictions on imports and exports but all equivalent measures. Sports clothing and materials are covered by these provisions. We shall probably enter a period of uncertainty but the future of trade relations between the UK and the EU will be at the top of the agenda as soon as the negotiations start. Also, in order to facilitate free movement, European standards for sporting purposes goods have been set up by the European Committee for Standardization – n°136 - (full list of standards here). This probably exposes the EU to the bureaucratic suspicion but these harmonisations are necessary to facilitate trade between the EU and to ensure a common level of consumer safety. UK/EU negotiations on Brexit will surely and primarily focus on trade agreements which hopefully will lower the risk of a return to full quotas and tariffs obligations. Nonetheless, trade between the UK and the EU will suffer as much in the sport sector as for other sectors and, again, an EEA type agreement would be welcome for both parties. 

One specific category of goods is important for the sport sector, namely the circulation of civil firearms. EU sport shooters have access to a European firearms pass under directive 91/477/EEC on the control of the acquisition and possession of weapons. This means that they can cross EU internal market borders without prior authorisation in order to attend competitions and trainings. Brexit will withdraw the possibility of obtaining that pass which may result in more red tape for sportspeople at the borders.

Finally, free movement also concerns horses which under EU law are qualified of “goods intended for sporting purposes”. This term is used to refer to the set of directives regulating the movement of and trade in equidae at the EU level. Three different directives are in force and may be impacted by Brexit. In turn, this will have severe consequences for the UK as the horse sector, whether for competition or horseracing, is really strong. Identification requirements – name, genealogy and victories – are established by EU law (directive 90/427/EEC and regulation 504/2008/EC) under strict animal health conditions and “regional” quarantine principles in case of disease (directive 2009/156/EEC). Trade of horses and participation in competitions within the EU is subject to non-discrimination and equal treatment principles between horses without distinction based on the Member States of origin (directive 90/428/EEC). This principle applies to the rules of competition, the judging and the prizes awarded for that competition. Some exceptions regarding specific stud-book, regional or traditional competition are possible. Finally, it should also be noted that a European Community code relating to veterinary medicinal products exists to implement the free movement of veterinary products and to prevent animal doping. Re-entry of registered horses for racing, competition and cultural events after temporary export to non-EU countries is also regulated (directive 93/195/EEC). The UK horse sector will have to change its habits (see, for example the reaction of British horseracing authority to the Brexit vote) after Brexit and the movement of horses with the EU will be more difficult as a consequence. However, as a former EU Member State, the UK will certainly negotiate a favourable agreement with the EU even though obligations concerning the arrival from and return to their home countries outside the EU of sport horses is already regulated. Additionally, it will be possible to negotiate bilateral agreements.[1]

The impact of Brexit regarding the rules of the internal market is important and goes further than just football and the Premier League. The push for a trade agreement with access to the EU internal market here has a special importance for UK sport as for the EU. Otherwise, a complete Brexit will surely end up in a difficult step backward alongside a complete reorganisation of national rules.  

[1] Such an agreement – Tripartite Agreement (TPA) – already exists between France, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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