Clarity must be the order of the day for business in Brexit negotiations
31 May 2017
Adam Marshall, Director General, British Chambers of Commerce
Since the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, Chambers of Commerce across the country have been speaking to and surveying thousands of companies - all with a view to ensuring that the top priorities of their local firms are heard as the next government prepares to begin negotiations for exiting the EU.
Despite the huge diversity within and between Britain's business communities, they've delivered a clear message. Most are simply getting on with business, but want practical considerations to be at the forefront of the government’s Brexit negotiation strategy.
Earlier this year, the British Chambers of Commerce published its Business Brexit Priorities report, focusing on seven key areas where UK businesses want clarity and certainty: cross-border trade; regulatory stability; customs procedures; cross-border tax; hiring and the labour market; what replaces EU funding across the nations and regions; and the future of the Irish border.
Businesses are trying to ignore the noise around the Westminster classes, particularly with the distraction of another general election.
What concerns them are the nitty-gritty, everyday issues that could arise as they work to continue and to expand that trade. The reaction of many business leaders to the political debate around the UK’s future relationship is one of disbelief, because the fundamental issues they face day in and day out don't seem to be addressed.
Will my company's licences to operate still be valid? Who do I pay VAT to and when? Is there a risk that my goods get stuck at the border? What standards do I need to adhere to? If I employ someone from Europe today, can they stay in my firm for the long term? The list goes on.
It is answers to these sorts of questions - narrow though they may seem to some - upon which successful trading relationships between UK firms and their customers and suppliers in Europe will depend in future.
Ministers may not be able to provide concerned businesses with the finality and clarity they seek at this early stage, but they must work hand-in-glove with UK business interests to ensure that these practical questions are well and truly addressed.
And yet, nearly a year after the referendum, the most pressing Brexit-related issue remains the uncertainty around the status of existing EU workers in the UK. I see it everywhere I go, whether it is a software company in Cornwall, or the oil industry in Aberdeen. It vexes the business community that the government has so far failed to make a simple unilateral commitment to enshrine the rights of EU citizens – it is the right thing for our businesses, the economy, and for the individuals concerned. Waiting for the EU governments to reciprocate flies in the face of doing everything possible to support business confidence.
The next government also has an opportunity to create a positive immigration system, resetting the relationship between the Home Office and business, so that attempting to hire someone from overseas does not feel like entering into a “low-level war” with the department, as one business told me. Businesses should be front and centre of these discussions, not an afterthought.
In nearly every business community I visit, I'm reminded that an obsessive focus on the political twists and turns of Brexit in Westminster and Whitehall is no recipe for future success.
Delivery and outcomes are what matter to business, not solely the objectives for negotiations. Businesses will want to plan for the final outcome, so the government must put clarity and advice at the heart of their communications back to business. They will hope that these principles form the basis of all negotiations with the EU-27 over the next two years.
For Britain's resilient, still-optimistic business communities to seize the opportunities afforded by change, it is certainty on the practical stuff that will make or break their future competitiveness - and that of the UK as a whole.
Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.