36 billion: that is the predicted annual cost to the British economy of Great Britain leaving the European Union, as forecast by the UK Treasury on Monday. The impact of a “Leave vote” on the Premier League, whose combined turnover will be north of £4bn next season, has not yet been estimated, but the English top flight is concerned. Peter Coates, the chairman of Stoke City, told Rory Smith of The Times that there were “all sorts of worries” about the effects of a “Brexit”.
There are also concerns about the enforcement of the league’s intellectual property rights outside a European framework and the increased cost of traveling abroad for supporters. But by far the biggest issue, is that of recruitment. Without the freedom of movement afforded to European players by EU law, professional footballers from the continent might require work permits to play in the UK, which would put English clubs at a severe disadvantage.
Non-EEA (European Economic Area) players are currently only allowed to play in Britain if they’re either “internationally established at the highest level” or “make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level”. It is therefore much more difficult for Premier League clubs to sign promising Brazilian and African players than in other European leagues, where no such restrictions apply.
“An exit would leave many questions,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger cautioned. “For example, will the French be considered the same as South Americans?” Immigration lawyer Andrew Osborne believes that the UK government would be unwilling to grant professional footballers from Europe special rights for fear of opening the floodgates. “If the country voted to leave and they made an exception for football, much bigger, important industries could request their own system, threatening to take away thousands of jobs they provide unless their requests were catered for. They will not do it,” Osborne was quoted by The Times.
Karren Brady, West Ham United’s vice chairman warned that “the loss of unhindered access to European talent” would hurt the competitiveness of British football. Talent is the operative word here: as an exception to FIFA’s regulations, EU law allows the free movement of minors within the EEA. If EU law no longer applied to Premier League clubs, then they wouldn’t be able to sign teenagers from across the channel anymore.
There is of course no way of telling how Britain will vote on June 23rd. And even if the Leave camp were to win, it will take years before a new agreement governing the relationship between the UK and Europe is hammered out. Most Brexit proponents hope that, like Norway and Switzerland, Britain will be allowed to remain in the EEA. In that case, the knock-on effect on the Premier League would, in all likelihood, be fairly minimal. “If the UK government’s priority is to benefit from tariff free EEA trade, degrees of free movement concessions from the UK government are inevitable,” believes Daniel Geey, a well-respected football lawyer and blogger.
Another major factor might well come into play this summer: the European Championships. Another poor performance from Roy Hodgson’s men may well see the Leave camp espouse the obvious advantages of a Brexit for English players: fewer foreigners to compete with for squad places in the league, and fewer foreign teenagers in the academies. If such a restrictive regime came to pass, the downside would be huge inflationary pressure on wages and transfer fees for English players. Premier League clubs would effectively be set back 25 years to the early 1990s, before the Bosman rule created an influx of foreign talent.
But even that nightmare scenario would come with a significant silver lining for club owners. Freed from EU regulations, they would (at last) be able to introduce a salary cap. The Premier League might lose a few stars as a result and lose further ground in European competition, but it will be even more profitable.