Home » UK snubs EC bid to negotiate EU-UK deal on study mobility

UK snubs EC bid to negotiate EU-UK deal on study mobility


The European Commission (EC) announced on Thursday that it is seeking permission from the European Council to open talks with the United Kingdom on a new arrangement that would allow greater freedom of movement for 18- to 30-year-olds to work and study.

The initiative would open the way to restoring freedom of movement for European Union students studying in the UK and UK students studying in Europe which ended when the UK left the EU on 31 December 2020.

But the UK government has dismissed the offer, saying it is only interested in bilateral deals with individual EU member states, not an EU-wide deal and the opposition Labour party says that it has “no plans” for such a scheme if it wins power in the general election later this year.

The EC said the objective of its proposal “would be to facilitate youth exchanges, making it easier for young EU citizens to travel, work and live in the UK, with reciprocity for young UK nationals in a member state”, the commission says.

European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said: “The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has hit young people in the EU and the UK who would like to study, work and live abroad particularly hard.

“Today, we take the first step towards an ambitious but realistic agreement between the EU and the UK that would fix this issue. Our aim is to rebuild human bridges between young Europeans on both sides of the Channel.”

The EC is proposing that 18- to 30-year-old citizens of the EU and the UK will be able to stay for up to four years in the destination country regardless of the purpose, whether it is to study, train, work or travel and without having to pay high visa fees. There would be no quotas limiting numbers.

The UK Sponsorship Scheme and the UK’s healthcare surcharge would not apply to students or other beneficiaries of the new arrangement.

Equal treatment

The proposal would ensure “equal treatment between EU and UK citizens in respect of higher education tuition fees”.

In the UK this would mean a return to the situation where in the UK EU students are charged the same fees as domestic students in the constituent nations within the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), rather than the often significantly higher fees charged to international students.

Likewise in European countries UK students would be charged the same tuition fees as domestic students where such fees exist.

The level of tuition fees in the UK for international students for an undergraduate degree varies between £11,400 (US$14,200) and £38,000 per year, while the average costs are estimated to be around £22,000 per year, the EC notes. Tuition fees in EU public universities are generally not that high for international (non-EU) students.

Currently the UK’s student visa fee is £490 and student visa holders have to pay a healthcare surcharge of £776.

The proposal would also make it easier and less costly for EU students to undertake traineeships in the UK when such traineeships are required by or part of EU-based studies.

Triggered by bilateral talks

The EC proposal has been triggered by concern that the UK is seeking to make bilateral arrangements with some European countries where the EU would prefer a single arrangement with the bloc as a whole.

A European Commission briefing document says: “The withdrawal of the UK from the EU has resulted in decreased mobility between the EU and the UK. This situation has particularly affected opportunities for young people.

“The UK has shown interest in the issue by reaching out to a number of member states on youth mobility. With this proposal, the Commission seeks to address this matter of common concern in an EU-wide manner.”

The EC says only an EU-level approach will ensure that all member states are treated equally in respect of mobility of young people to the UK, which is one of the key considerations of the 2018 European Council guidelines on relations with the UK.

“Parallel negotiations by member states neither guarantee that the UK would be interested in reaching an agreement with each member state nor would they guarantee that each member state would be treated equally.”

The proposal will be popular among young people in the UK who strongly supported freedom of movement within the EU when the UK was a member.

But the pushback from the UK government is not unexpected, given that it has put reducing migration high on its political agenda.

The UK already has a youth mobility scheme visa allowing young people from 10 countries including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada to study or work in the UK for up to two years and it is not open to EU applicants.

According to the BBC, the government says it is willing to extend that scheme to individual EU countries but not the bloc as a whole.

“We are not introducing an EU-wide youth mobility scheme – free movement within the EU has ended and there are no plans to introduce it,” a government spokesperson said late on Friday.

A more flexible approach

However, with opinion polls suggesting that the Labour Party is currently on course for a big majority, the proposals may also be seen as signalling a willingness to push for a more flexible approach when the UK government changes.

Stella Creasy, MP and national chair of the executive committee of the Labour Movement for Europe, welcomed the “willingness of the EU to consider a mobility agreement”.

She told ITV: “Since Brexit, our young people [have] lost out on jobs, university places and countless opportunities all because they can’t easily move across Europe.

“Labour must now be clear that, in government, we will not let this opportunity to help limit the damage leaving the EU has done to our young people pass us by.”

But Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer has been wary of taking any positions that could alienate pro-Brexit voters whom he needs to win back to Labour if he is to return Labour to power.

A party spokesperson said it had promised that there would be “no return to the single market, customs union or free movement” if it takes office, the BBC reported.

The rejection by both main parties has angered supporters of free movement.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ed Davey, said that while the details of any agreement would need to be negotiated “no sensible government would reject this deal out of hand.”

The European Youth Movement said: “Britain’s youth has been isolated and forgotten. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

The EC argues that the proposal does not amount to reinstating freedom of movement as it applied when the UK was an EU member pre-Brexit because the envisaged agreement would provide for limited-in-time mobility, subject to the fulfilment of conditions to be checked before the mobility can take place. The conditions should also be met during the stay.

“It is not about conferring to young UK nationals the benefits of the fundamental freedom of movement enjoyed by EU citizens,” the EC says.

Currently the EU regards UK citizens as ‘third country nationals’ who are allowed to stay in the EU for 90 days but then must leave the EU and the wider Schengen Area for 90 days or more. Studying in the EU is only possible after meeting complicated visa requirements.

This article was updated on 20 April 2024