“Travelling is different right now,” declares easyJet in a pre-departure e-mail the airline currently sends its passengers. The message goes on to provide a list of preparations for, and limitations on, foreign journeys caused not only by coronavirus but by Brexit as well.
Managing business travel is also different right now, and looks set to stay that way. “Travel managers need to be aware their job is not just about buying commodities like air and hotel any more,” says Tobias Schönborn, managing director of mobility service provider visumPOINT. “They now need to be much more involved in risk management and compliance topics.”
Mobility compliance complexities abound, such as the need for Posted Worker notification and A1 social security certificates when working in an EU country (including for European Union citizens). In late 2021 German travel managers’ association VDR helped influence the European Commission to draft an exemption for short business trips that would effectively confirm A1 certificates as unnecessary for white-collar travel.
However, approval of the exemption has been held up by changing presidencies of the Council of the EU (now held by France, one of the biggest champions of the A1 requirement) and, said VDR president Christoph Carnier, lack of clarification of how long a “short” business trip can be.
Coronavirus-related hoop-jumping also remains necessary when entering many countries. Covid obligations are here to stay, a panel on mobility compliance agreed at last month’s Global Business Travel Association/VDR conference. “The only question is to what extent,” said BCD Travel director of global account management Oliver Meinicke.
Brexit begins to bite
But arguably the biggest mobility compliance issue currently dogging business travel is the UK’s departure from the EU. Immigration-related changes took effect once the agreed transition period ended on 31 December 2020 but are largely only being felt now.
“We see more and more clients face the reality of Brexit over the past couple of months where actually it causes friction for a UK national needing to work in the EU and vice versa,” said Frank Jura, CIBTvisas and Newland Chase managing director for Germany and Austria, at the same GBTA/VDR session.
Schönborn agrees, highlighting as a particular problem the rule allowing UK passport holders only to visit the EU (or vice versa) visa-free for 90 days in any 180-day period – see ‘Counting the days’ guest column for more.
“Last year no one really travelled but now that people are starting to travel again, 90 days is proving very tough for frequent travellers like salespeople, especially as personal vacation time is also deducted from the 90-day allowance,” he says. “They are starting to find they are exceeding their limits.”
I booked a holiday to Sicily, which was a mistake; I should have gone to Wales. I can’t go on summer holiday to Europe any more”
That is exactly what is happening to Robin Balme, a specialist automation electrical contractor based in the UK. Balme spent the best part of three months working in France at the end of 2021 and is currently fitting a cruise ship in Finland. He has already run up against the 90-day limit once and is about to do so again.
“I booked a holiday to Sicily, which was a mistake; I should have gone to Wales,” says Balme. “I can’t go on summer holiday to Europe any more. From 9 June I will have to wait six weeks before I can return to the EU for another two weeks. There is more work available for me after the summer holidays but I don’t know if it’s worth going through with because of the red tape.
“It’s certainly affecting my ability to work,” Balme continues. “A large majority of the work I do is in the EU. I also know many people who work in the music industry and they have lost all their European tours. Why use someone from Britain if you can use a European?”
Balme now resorts constantly to a special Brexit calculator that allows him to plan when he can and can’t work in the EU, and how long he has to wait before returning.
Brexit has given Balme other travel headaches too. He had to forfeit his original non-refundable air ticket to Finland because the essential specialist equipment for his work that had been sent ahead was delayed in customs and unavailable to him.
Among sectors hit especially hard by the 90-day rules are construction, engineering, automotive and energy, according to Schönborn. “Our clients are seeing the issues coming up and are looking for solutions like work permits for countries their travellers visit frequently,” he says, adding that the process can cost more than €2,000.
“That has other implications, like taxation liabilities, and you need an address in the country where you can receive the permit and an entity in the country to be the local sponsor,” says Schönborn.
“Many of our clients are saying they will be more careful. We have German clients who are saying they won’t tender for projects in the UK any more, and others saying they will not send Brits to the EU but will use people from elsewhere in Europe.”
One company having to rethink deployments is Siemens. “Easy travel between the EU and UK is not possible any more even though people are not realising that [yet],” its head of global framework, Meike Geiken, told the GBTA/VDR session. “You have to have a view of how much your population in the UK has to travel around Europe, and the other way around. Do we need a work permit or a visa that we didn’t need before?
“That leads to lead times, costs and impact on flexible business travel. As a company you need to look at your business in the UK: do you need to ramp up resources or ramp down resources?” Geiken said.
One individual who has discovered how painful the need to acquire a work visa can be is Mark Webber, Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham, who heads to Rome later this year for a six-month secondment. Webber has found Italian bureaucracy’s Kafkaesque reputation only too well deserved, where even the people he was trying to deal with seemed unsure of the rules.
“It was all certainly made more complicated by no longer being in the EU,” says Webber. “Brexit means I’ve had to apply for a visa I wouldn’t previously have had to apply for. It was easier to get a visa to enter Russia a few years ago than to go to Italy.”