A few people have asked me what Brexit would mean for football in the UK and especially the English Premier League where around two thirds of the players are currently not British. The answer depends on exactly what agreement the UK were to negotiate with the EU in the event of a vote for Brexit, but the most likely answer is “not much”. Daniel Geey has written a concise summary of the main legal issues here. If EU players continue to have access to the UK market on roughly the same terms as hitherto, there’s no reason to think that the market would change much.
Some people might say that as an economist I have nothing more to say than this. But there are two further points I want to make.
As a matter of fact – I believe the evidence supports the proposition that openness has made English football in particular much better since it became open to international movement, which has a lot to do with membership of the EU. There were virtually no foreigners in English football until 1978, and in the following decade most of the foreign players entering the UK came from Europe, a trend which accelerated following after the 1995 Bosman judgment, one of the European Court of Justice’s finest decisions.
English clubs and fans benefitted from being able to raise the standard of play in England, a fact that I have argued has led to a better standard play at the national team level. If you are one of those who think the national teams will do better with fewer foreign players take a look at the evidence.The march of the Premier League to global dominance has been a function both of openness to talent and openness to investors – bolstered by Britain’s membership of the EU. It’s possible to argue that Britain outside the EU could be even more open- but it is evident that a large fraction of support for the Leave campaign is motivated by anti-immigration sentiments which are hardly likely to make Britain outside the EU a more inviting place for foreigners.
As a matter of opinion – Many people on both sides of the Brexit want to make this an issue about personal income- will I be richer or poorer outside the EU? For what it’s worth, I think the average Briton would be a little poorer after Brexit. Life would be more complicated, investment would be more risky, but the economic damage would not be that great. The reason is that, however bitter the Brexit negotiations would be (and I would guess “very”), the economic fact is that Britain needs to trade with the EU and the EU needs to trade with Britain. Moreover, if Brexit were about some fundamental proposition of political liberty or justice then I wouldn’t think twice about accepting the hit to my income.
But it isn’t- this debate is primarily about immigration. Polls show that this is consistently the main issue for voters, with Brexit supporters tending to believe that EU membership is diluting British culture and leading to too much immigration. That’s not the kind of opinion that I want to shape Britain’s future.
My father was an immigrant from Poland- a soldier in 1939 who managed to escape, join the British army, marry a British wife and become a British citizen. It wasn’t so easy for Poles (or Hungarian) immigrants in Britain in the 1950s, just as it wasn’t easy for immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean in the 1960s, or Greek Cypriots and Ugandan Asians in the 1970s. And no doubt it wasn’t easy for Jewish refugees at the beginning of the 20th century, or Huguenots, or any other wave of immigrants in British history.
But ultimately, I believe the British value of toleration has led ultimately to acceptance and integration. Britain has always been a country of migrants, and that for me is what helps to make it Great Britain.The diversity of Britain has always been for me one the greatest sources of pride in my country- whether in sport or any other dimension of life. Brexit would make us less diverse and so far poorer in ways that are much more important than the merely financial.