Will Brexit Make Studying EU Law in the UK Less Relevant?

Withdrawal from the Erasmus exchange scheme and higher tuition fees could hit EU student numbers. If anything, though, Brexit has made EU law more dynamic and important

The UK has a rich history of teaching European law, dating back to the European Union’s origins as the former European Community, formed in 1957. British university academics have been at the forefront of the European project, helping to shepherd its evolution into a 27-member bloc today; a legal and political superpower.

The schools’ deep theoretical and practical expertise has drawn lawyers from around the world to the UK, to study in the heart of Europe, so close to its leading legal institutions. Indeed, many students come from all over Europe and elsewhere to study LL.M. programs in European Law each year.

While Brexit does not necessarily erode these advantages, it could reduce Britain’s attractiveness as a place to study EU law – a supreme system of statues that harmonizes and overrules all laws across the member states, thereby enshrining equality of the populations.

That’s because a high proportion of students on EU Law LL.M. courses are EU nationals who have an obvious affinity to the system. “There is a high risk of less EU students coming to the UK,” says Stijn Smismans, director of the Centre for European Law and Governance at Cardiff University in Wales. Its law school runs the LL.M. European Legal Studies program.

He puts this risk down to the UK’s potential withdrawal from the Erasmus scheme that helps students to study in other EU countries. In 2017, nearly 32,000 EU nationals came to the UK through the program.  

They also face potentially far higher tuition fees at UK universities starting in 2021. These institutions are bracing themselves for a substantial drop in EU student enrollment due to travel restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19, which could hit EU law LL.M.s.

However, this does not mean studying EU law in the UK is any less relevant, says Smismans. “Many excellent EU law scholars are at UK universities. In the short or medium term, that is unlikely to change.” Longer-term, however, UK schools risk losing some of their star EU academics due to uncertainty over their continued residency status and access to EU research funding, which is far from guaranteed.

UK institutions are trying to make up for any loss of EU students with those from elsewhere in the world, where EU law is increasingly relevant, as well as British lawyers who still operate in the confines of EU law.

“The EU is a key global trade player and sets regulatory standards which are respected around the world,” says Smismans. “EU studies in the UK have already moved considerably in this direction over the last decade. This will make it increasingly attractive for students from non-EU countries to study EU law in the UK.”

The same can be said for UK students who are, ironically, recognizing the relevance of EU law at the moment Britain is leaving the bloc. “For anybody with an interest in trade, environmental law, competition policy, approaches to new technologies and data protection, the EU is unavoidable — whether one is part of the EU or not,” Smismans says.

“This is particularly the case for British students, as regardless of the direction of Brexit, the UK cannot escape its geography.”

Grappling with one of the messiest legal fallouts in history

The Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London (KCL) has been teaching EU law for 50 years. Professor Andrea Biondi, director Center of European Law, believes the school’s LL.M. in European Law will become even more attractive post-Brexit because its professors are on the cutting edge of the legal fallout between the UK and the EU, which is one of the messiest in economic history ever.

Biondi, for one, has been called before a UK parliamentary committee to discuss a key EU request: that Britain should continue to follow EU state aid rules. He has also debated trade relations with the bloc.

The Brexit process has been hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, but British and EU officials have vied to reinvigorate talks on their future relationship. The UK is still set to formally leave the bloc by 2021, even if that seems extremely difficult in current circumstances.   

“Brexit has become such a huge battlefield,” says Biondi. “We are at the center of everything to do with Brexit. Students find this an engaging and intellectually stimulating environment.”

Brexit has made EU law more dynamic and important. This is reflected in the teaching at King’s, with Brexit being embedded into virtually every law course, from public procurement to global trade and state aid.

The all-powerful and wide-ranging nature of EU law has drawn students to LL.M. courses for decades. With the legislative power EU institutions hold over its member states, EU law is a career path in its own right. Most students from KCL end up working in Brussels for key institutions involved in setting legislation — such as the European Parliament, Council and Commission — as well as EU banks, courts and committees.

Career opportunities for those completing EU Law LL.M. programs in the UK

Career opportunities are expanding as EU law globalizes and affects countries far beyond the European continent. LL.M. graduates work in international law firms, for instance, and for governments around the world.

“It’s not like when I started in European law 20 years ago, when it was more linear,” says Biondi. “Now you can specialize in fast-changing fields, such as economics, environmental protection and consumer rights. Studying EU law, everyone can find their niche.”

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