AstraZeneca EVP: Brexit is hindering our hiring

AstraZeneca EVP Mene Pangalos (AstraZeneca)

People are turning down jobs at AstraZeneca because of uncertainty about their right to stay in the United Kingdom after Brexit, according to Mene Pangalos. The AstraZeneca EVP said the ongoing lack of clarity about what will happen to Europeans in the U.K. after March 2019 is leading some scientists to opt for jobs in other countries. 

Pangalos, who represents AstraZeneca at high-level government Brexit meetings, has spoken in the past of the need for the U.K. to create a “welcoming” environment for scientific and clinical talent from around the world. Today, European Union rules make it easy for people to move from across the region to the U.K. But that looks set to end in the coming years. 

Government ministers have mostly tried to reassure businesses that the U.K. will always welcome talent. But, in Pangalos’ experience, these words are failing to convince people who are thinking of making the U.K. their home. 

“We’re starting to see people turn us down now, in the U.K., because they don’t know what the outcome will be in terms of future employment, even though we tell them we have no doubt great talent is going to be accepted down the road. They haven’t got that certainty and so they’re saying ‘until we’ve got it, we’d rather go and work somewhere else,’” Pangalos told the House of Lords science and technology committee.

That is potentially a big problem for AstraZeneca and the rest of the U.K. drug development sector. While institutions in Cambridge, Oxford, London and elsewhere are justifiably lauded, their status at the forefront of science is predicated on their ability to cast their nets wider than the 65 million people who currently live in the U.K.

These universities and businesses have had easy access to talent from neighboring nations since the U.K. joined what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973. After decades of such flexibility, about 10% of AstraZeneca’s workforce are either Europeans living in the U.K. or vice versa. At some biotechs, one-third or more of the staff originate from the other 27 EU countries.

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The lack of clarity about the rights of people who relocate to the U.K., anti-immigrant atmosphere created by parts of the press and, at times, the government and the decline in the value of the pound against the Euro are all making the U.K. less attractive to new hires from overseas. 

These same issues are affecting AstraZeneca’s existing employees.

“I’ve started to become worried about the impact of Brexit on our employees,” Pangalos said. “They're worrying about the uncertainty. We’re being as positive as we can be in terms of saying ‘we’re going to look after you’ but the fact we have no idea what’s going to happen is a real, real problem.”

The status of EU nationals living in the U.K.—and vice versa—has been one of the sticking points of the first phase of Brexit negotiations. Both sides say they want to reach an agreement that allows people to stay. But, seven months after the U.K. started a two-year countdown to Brexit, they are yet to reach an agreement.

Speaking after the fifth round of talks ended in another stalemate, Brexit secretary David Davis said negotiators are yet to reach agreement on the recognition of professional qualifications, the right to vote in local elections and freedom to move around the EU. 

Around the same time, news emerged that Prime Minister Theresa May planned to contact EU nationals living in the U.K. The heart of the message is: “I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the U.K. today will be able to stay.”

The degree of reassurance that provides to EU nationals in the U.K. will depend on how much they trust May and are confident in her ability to get what she wants. The use of the word “today” means the comment offers little to no reassurance to EU nationals who are considering relocating to the U.K.