December 10, 2020

Brexit border: the Frontier Worker Permit

Written by Ben Rosher. Ben is a Guest Contributor to the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ Research Platform

Boris Johnson signing off on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland[1] in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement[2] moved most attention regarding border management, particularly as it pertains to trade, to the Irish Sea. However, as we move out of the Brexit transition period, the UK government have announced a policy which will require a shift of focus back toward the land border.

The Frontier Worker Permit

Without much fanfare, in October 2020 the UK government drafted legislation for the Frontier Worker Permit under the Citizens’ Rights (Frontier Workers) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020[3]. This permit requires EU26 citizens (or EEA state national or Swiss citizens) who live outside the UK but are employed in the UK to register in order to continue have the freedom to work (but not live) in the UK after the end of the transition period. This means that non-Irish EU/EEA workers who live in the Republic of Ireland and work in Northern Ireland will now be required to register for the permit in order to continue travelling from the south to the north for work.

The impacts of these changes are being compounded by what is an alarmingly short timescale for rollout and implementation. The application process will go live on 10th December 2020[4] and frontier workers must be employed in the capacity of a frontier worker by the end of December 2020 and must hold a valid Frontier Worker Permit from the 1st of July 2021. On this basis, from the start of 2021 any new frontier workers will have to satisfy the points-based migration system recently passed by the UK Parliament. These new measures will almost certainly limit the number of EU26 frontier workers as the majority of EU26 nationals working in Northern Ireland (55%) are traditionally employed in “unskilled” work[5] and so would be unlikely to satisfy the points requirements, particularly regarding salary thresholds or educational requirements[6].

Estimating cross border travel figures is a notoriously difficult task[7]. In 2016, the Irish census identified 7,037 people who lived in the south and were working in the north[8]. The NI Department for the Economy published a paper in 2019 which estimates that there are 35,700 border crossings on an average weekday from south to north which begin at a “home” location and terminate at a “work” location[9]. Among these figures it is, at present, unfortunately not possible to estimate how many of these cross-border journeys are made by EU26 citizens. What can be estimated with some confidence is that the majority of south-north cross-border commuters are in Donegal with the destination county being Derry-Londonderry[10][11]. Combined with the geographic peripherality of Donegal to the rest of the south and the generally poor state of transport infrastructure on the island outside of the Belfast-Dublin corridor means that anything which impacts on frontier workers is likely to be more keenly felt in the north-west than elsewhere on the island.

Despite the profound changes that the legislation will entail for frontier workers and border communities, the UK government have not consulted on the Frontier Worker permit or its legislation or implementation[12], nor have they yet initiated a public awareness campaign to make those impacted aware of the forthcoming changes. The Committee on the Administration of Justice have written an open letter signed by several cross-border organisations and charities including The Centre for Cross Border Studies and Border People to express their concern over “the development and implementation of this scheme, and the failure by the UK government to engage with the significant impacts of this scheme in Northern Ireland” [13].

Brexit and consultation in the border region

From the perspective of border communities, the lack of consultation, communication, and engagement by the UK government has been a regrettable feature of the Brexit process to date. An analysis of focus group data collected by Professor Katy Hayward for her series of reports for the Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN) into the impact of Brexit in the central border region between 2017 and 2019[14][15][16] finds that participants consistently feel that there has been a lack of communication from the UK government as well as, although to a lesser extent, Irish and EU political decision makers.

“We’re not being told what they’re doing” (Female: 03:43, Ballyshannon, 2018)

“Specific to this area is that feeling that we’ve been able to build cross border relationships to an extraordinary degree. So much so that I would say the understanding now that we have cross border in the central region in a way has surpassed the understanding that the other centres of power – Dublin, Belfast, and Westminster – have of us and of the problem. We know the problem much better than anybody sitting in those centres of power, and I’ll throw in Brussels. And yet, apart from you and a few other people, nobody has consulted us throughout the process of negotiation in the last three years.” (Male: 04:40, Caledon, 2019)

Border residents are, as a result of their lived experience, uniquely well placed to understand how border life has moved on and developed in the two decades that have passed since the signing of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and have in depth insight into the challenges that need to be overcome as Brexit progresses. Unfortunately, this lack of governmental  communication has left residents of the border region all too often unaware of the changes that Brexit is bringing until they have already arrived, and unable to communicate their concerns and potential solutions to the centres of power in the UK as well as in Ireland and the EU.

The post-Brexit border

In 2017 Dr Sylvia De Mars, when asked about the how the Irish border would be policed post Brexit, replied “Immigration controls are being moved away from the border, if you will, towards life.”[17] In practice it is not so much that case that immigration controls are being moved away from the border as it is the border itself being moved away from the border toward life – the whole apparatus and practice of the border will, post-Brexit, occur at a multiplicity of sites and levels, the Frontier Worker Permit being but one example.

To better understand the logic and implications of this “movement toward life” it helps to take a step back from a static conception of what and where we think borders are and see them for what they do. From this vantage point it becomes readily apparent that this scheme is part of a broader trend of governmental approaches toward border management. In particular, modern borders are designed to categorise, organise, and monitor that which would cross them. On this basis the Frontier Worker Permit can perhaps be best thought of as the sister mechanism to Settled Status as part of a ‘suite’ of post-Brexit border management tools. This means that it is not going to be enforced at the state’s boundary, but rather it is a new type of what we might term ‘bordering instrument’ which is personalised, i.e. it is attached to the individual and moves with them. This instrument will, post transition, be found throughout UK workplaces as EU26 frontier workers will be asked to provide proof of their right to work in the UK. It is precisely because of the embodied nature of the Frontier Worker Permit and its impact across the island of Ireland (and indeed GB) that the lack of consultation and public awareness campaign to this point is highly regrettable and that an awareness campaign is urgently needed.

From a practical perspective the UK government are going to be heavily reliant on border businesses and communities, which are composed of multiple nationalities[18], to implement and monitor compliance with the Frontier Worker Permit. Forcing this type of border upon people absent their awareness and engagement will not work, particularly if the costs of compliance are perceived as being higher than the costs and possible opportunities of non-compliance. Many of the people who will be required to register for a permit and the people checking said permit may have known each other for years and be more than reluctant to act as “de facto border guards” for the UK[19].

Therefore it is essential that the UK government engages with border communities and businesses and, at the very least, initiates a public awareness campaign regarding the changes that are to come into effect at the start of 2021, and then again at the start of July 2021. Such an initiative is required to encourage uptake by those who will require the permit; it is also necessary to prevent frontier workers and their employers from inadvertently falling into non-compliance. For example, from the 1st of July 2021 frontier workers operating under the scheme will be required to hold both a valid Frontier Worker Permit and another form of valid personal ID[20].

It is crucial to recognise that the success of any such public awareness initiative will require the UK government to coordinate with both the Irish government and the EU as, while the permit operates specifically within the UK, the impact of the introduction of the permit will be felt more widely. Frontier workers who will need to register for a permit will be those who reside in the Republic of Ireland and hold citizenship of another EU member state; these changes may impact on where in Ireland EU26 citizens choose to live and work. Therefore, a responsible course of action dictates that information regarding permit requirements will need to be coordinated with the Irish government and be made available in all official EU languages.

International coordination and community engagement

To conclude, then, the Frontier Worker Permit is a new form of border management ‘instrument’. By not consulting border communities and businesses and seeking their input in the formulation and implementation of the Frontier Worker Permit, the UK government has already missed out on valuable insight and risks damaging relationships with the very people they need on-side to encourage compliance with the Frontier Worker Permit.

Looking to the immediate future, despite the lack of consultation to this point, if the implementation and operation of the Frontier Worker Permit is to work as intended, it will require that the UK and Irish governments, and the EU coordinate in initiating an awareness campaign providing crucial information to the individuals, communities, and businesses impacted by the forthcoming changes. This is essential to encourage uptake and to avoid them inadvertently falling into non-compliance. This coordination between governments is necessary as any disruption will not only impact the UK but have direct implications EU26 citizens living across Ireland.




The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Centre for Cross Border Studies.


About the Author

Ben Rosher holds a NINE doctoral training scholarship in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast. His research sits within the field of international political sociology and the sub-field of critical border studies. He has written and presented on Brexit and political attitudes in Northern Ireland and is presently working on a PhD investigating the impact of Brexit on the Irish border as it pertains to EU26 nationals. He has a particular interest in critical border theory and how, where, and to what end borders exist and are experienced.



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