The UK is scheduled to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019 by virtue of having served a formal notice under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union to terminate its membership of the EU.
At the time of writing, it is still not clear whether this departure will be delayed, accompanied by a ‘deal’ smoothing the exit through a transition period or whether the UK will leave the EU in a ‘no-deal’ scenario.
This note focuses on the potential company law impact to UK private limited companies of exiting the EU in a no-deal scenario. It is important to remember that this is a fluid situation with events changing rapidly; however, the good news for UK incorporated private limited companies is that whilst many other legal areas may be subject to quite significant change, UK company law is not expected to be immediately affected even in the event of a no-deal exit.
The Companies Act 2006
The key legislation governing and regulating English and Welsh companies is the Companies Act 2006. This includes the types of companies that can be incorporated, their liability, the role of Companies House, directors’ duties, and the rules on accounts and audit. Whilst some parts of the Companies Act 2006 are derived from EU Directives such as shareholder rights, the majority of English company law is not derived from EU legislation. The Companies Act 2006 will, therefore, continue in force as at present and no-deal will not of itself change the legal status of UK incorporated companies. However, the company law form of a European Company (‘Societas Europaea’) will no longer be available in the UK.
Third Country Companies
Notwithstanding the expected limited effect on private limited companies, it is worth noting that following Brexit, UK incorporated companies will become ‘third country’ entities as far as European law is concerned. The significance of this is that Member States will not be obliged to recognise the legal personality and limited liability of companies which are incorporated in the UK but have their central administration or principal place of business in another EU Member State. There may be recognition by individual Member State’s national laws or under international law, but this is a point of uncertainty.
UK companies being considered third country entities will also affect a UK company’s ability to undertake a cross-border merger within the EU and rely on group company account exemptions if it has an EU parent. Similarly, UK incorporated companies with branches in other EU Member States will no longer benefit from favourable rules applicable to branches of third country companies. These are, however, issues that will most likely affect large companies or listed PLCs, rather than SMEs operating solely within the UK.
Trading and Commercial Impact
As the legal impact (at least initially) is expected to be limited, probably the biggest issue that UK private limited companies face is the commercial uncertainty that Brexit and particularly a no-deal Brexit may bring.
As yet, no one knows the trading terms that will take effect post-Brexit, and this could lead to both broader economic uncertainty within the UK as well as specifically impacting certain companies whose business model and strategy is more vulnerable to certain goods and exchange rate fluctuations. This is of course not something that anyone can yet predict with any certainty.
UK companies can therefore only adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach whilst trying to be aware of the vulnerabilities that their companies may face in the light of a potential no-deal Brexit.