The freedom of movement could hit Scottish sporting life as Britain's role in Europe changes
Henrik Larsson, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Franck Sauzée and Giles Rousset: European footballers who made their mark at Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Hearts, helping to raise the profile of Scottish football and earning legendary status among supporters. Thanks to European Union freedom of movement laws and court rulings, they were able to move seamlessly across international borders to make their mark on the Scottish game.
Otherwise, there’s less money in Scottish sport from media rights generally, so Scottish clubs may find it harder to attract the calibre of talent that would be eligible to come here if EU players are subject to the same rules as non-EU players.Paul McMahon
There are countless European sportsmen and women, coaches and backroom staff enhancing sport in the UK, whether on the football or rugby pitch, cricket ground or ice hockey rink, the basketball court and even the racecourse.
But for how much longer?
For just as Brexit has thrown a giant questionmark over the movement of goods, services and workers once Britain leaves the EU, it has also plunged the world of sport into uncertainty.
According to Paul McMahon, a partner in the employment team at leading Scottish law firm Brodies, while Brexit won’t mean an end to a continental presence in our leading sports teams, it could make it more difficult to bring international talent here.
At the same time, opportunities for our homegrown talented performers to make the leap on to the European stage may shrink.
“At the moment we’re EU citizens, and athletes, sportsmen and women, coaches, sports staff and fans from all 28 nations move freely within the EU,” explains McMahon.
“But when Britain stops being part of the EU, the EU laws on freedom of movement that we’ve become used to will stop applying, and UK immigration laws will take over.
“That might create obstacles for elite athletes to work and move freely.”
Currently sportsmen and women from the EU can join UK clubs without the need to meet certain criteria such as playing a certain number of games at international level – unlike most non-EU citizens.
However, in certain cases, non-EU players enjoy similar privileges thanks to the Kolpak ruling, which applies as long as their nation has an association agreement with the EU.
Meanwhile the famous 1995 Bosman ruling – which emerged from Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman’s bid to join a French club – outlawed caps that limited the numbers of EU players that clubs could field, ultimately changing the face of European football and creating “super clubs” packed with high-profile international stars.
These European rulings may cease to be relevant in the UK once Brexit has taken place, advises McMahon.
And the impact on Scottish sport – in particular football and rugby clubs which don’t have the same income from television rights as English clubs – is uncertain.
“The withdrawal agreement with the EU is, of course, not finalised, but it is thought unlikely that it will contain any special provision for movement of athletes,” adds McMahon.
“It’s possible some privileged status will be given to EU citizens, either generally or in particular sectors, as part of any trade deal.
“It’s also possible that the future relationship between the UK and EU could become an association agreement for Kolpak purposes, which would help UK athletes work in the EU and possibly vice versa.
“Otherwise, there’s less money in Scottish sport from media rights generally, so Scottish clubs may find it harder to attract the calibre of talent that would be eligible to come here if EU players are subject to the same rules as non-EU players.”
Some have argued that sport will be hindered by barriers to foreign expertise that can help nurture the next breed of sporting stars.
There’s also concern that work restrictions could curb UK players’ chances of gaining experience abroad.
However, others believe fewer European players in UK sports clubs will be an advantage, with homegrown talent having greater scope to flourish.
This could in turn lead to a larger and better experienced pool of players eligible to play in international competition.
McMahon adds that the Brexit vote initially caused uncertainty for EU citizens in the UK, but the negotiations have since produced more clarity on what is expected to happen.
“Athletes and other EU citizens who are already living in the UK can apply for settled status as long as they have at least five years’ residence.
“Those who arrive before the proposed transition period ends on 31 December, 2020, will be able to do the same so long as they then remain resident in the UK for the required five years.
“In addition, nothing has changed as yet from a legal perspective and the extent of change is not yet clear.
“While the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU and the related transition period could still collapse if there is a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it seems unlikely that the concessions made in relation to EU citizens already in the UK would be withdrawn.
“So the main impact on sportsmen and women thus far is some uncertainty on a personal level, with some reportedly considering their future job choices post-Brexit.”
Just as with any nail-biting sports event, the result will only become clear once the final Brexit whistle is blown.
The Brodies Tennis Invitational at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire is on 22 and 23 June. For details and tickets visit brodiesinvitational.com