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How will the new Brexit deal affect the engineering and technology sector?

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An analysis of how a Brexit deal could affect engineers.

With Boris Johnson's new Brexit deal on the table, it raises the question of what the new deal is offering compared to the previous, rejected, proposals. It is largely trade and customs, related to the regulation of goods but the avoidance of a hard border with Northern Ireland. It proposes replacing the controversial Irish backstop plan featured in Theresa May's deal. 

A fresh solution to the Irish border question is really the new extra. It replaces the backstop with a commitment that Northern Ireland will retain substantial regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit.

The effects of the new deal on engineering and technology are debatable, but observers believe that not much has changed from the previous proposals. 

With regard to the announcement, Make UK - an organisation that represents manufacturing, engineering and technology businesses in the UK - stated that "many unanswered questions would remain". In order to be happy with the conditions of a new deal, it would need to meet four key requirements: "A suitable transition period, regulatory alignment, protecting frictionless trade and accessing skilled labour”. 

Dr Joanna Cox, head of strategic engagement and policy at the IET, told E&T that while Boris Johnson's new deal does not affect the engineering and technology sector any differently than was the case for the previous PM Theresa May's proposals, there are certain conditions about which IET members are adamant. 

"We are in favour of a smooth transition and ongoing relationship between the UK and the EU", she said. A wide majority of IET members supported this notion in a member survey. 

The real issue concerns standards, Cox explained. Members support an ongoing close relationship with European standard agencies. The danger that could result from transitioning to a mere UK standard system instead of European standards has to do with the power the UK holds to change and influence them. With no-deal or a bad deal, the UK could see its power ceasing.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, 90 per cent of IET members working in the industry were found to support the stance to stay within the European standards agency. 

"If we remove ourselves from sitting at the table, without a deal, that would put the British Standards Institution membership in European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation potentially in doubt”, Cox added. 

Another concern often expressed relates to professional registration, primarily whether European engineers will face issues after a no-deal Brexit or even with a deal in place.

Cox said there is little reason for concern. The European Federation of National Engineering Associations (FEANI) which administers the European Engineer qualification (EUR ING) title - a title that is recognised across Europe as a valuable tool for the recognition of national qualifications among member states - existed prior to the formation of the European Union. In other words, the title will remain unaffected by Brexit. It is also down to the fact that FEANI is a European organisation, not a European Union organisation. 

The title allows engineers with an engineering degree and usually an engineering professional qualification in one of the member countries to use the qualification in others. 

The IET expressed its view in the past that it is in the best interests of engineering and technology to stay in the European Union. Its view has not changed. Despite being in favor of 'remain', Brexit with a deal and with a special skills immigration scheme could turn out to be an advantage for the sector, Cox argued. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel has vowed to launch an Australian-style, points-based immigration system that works in the ‘best interests’ of the country after the transition period, which may or may not include a grace period for EU nationals to apply for immigration status.

In December 2018, the UK government introduced it with a white paper adding more details about the skills-based immigration system. At that time, the government said that it will operate routes adapted from the current system for doors for exceptional talent, which will include a "flexible route for highly skilled individuals in the creative, arts and humanities, science, research and engineering, and digital technology sectors, who wish to work in the UK”.

As a result of the scheme, EU engineers will be incentivised to come to the UK, Cox said. She remains optimistic that IET members welcomed the move for the government to add engineering and technology to the list of industries included in the scheme. 

In a report published in October 2016, the Royal Academy of Engineering advised that the government’s negotiations with the EU should consider to "maintain ease of intra-company transfers, recognising that many companies require their engineers to move freely to support and fulfill contracts”. It should also ensure that talented students, academics and practicing engineers have certainty about the opportunities to study and work in the UK and that the government maintains or enhances support to enable UK students, academics and practicing engineers to gain international experience, including in the EU.

In terms of finance and markets, the Royal Academy of Engineering stated that government should continue membership of the Energy Community and alignment with the Digital Single Market. At the same time, it should mitigating the impact of the potential loss of European Investment Bank loans for UK infrastructure projects and provide possible alternative sources of low-cost finance.

It also advised maintaining data protection and cyber-security policies closely comparable to those of the EU to avoid barriers to trade.

The new deal by Boris Johnson will reportedly allow UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, to retain their residency and social security rights after Brexit. It will allow engineers from the EU to keep their right to work, as long as they have applied for the EU settlement scheme. 

Freedom of movement rules will continue to apply during the transition, which will allow European engineers to work in the UK and engineers from the UK in the EU. British engineers that have been living for more than five years in an EU country will be entitled to apply for permanent residence status in that country.


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