I suppose that it shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise that we’re no closer to a definitive resolution to Brexit 31 months after a referendum decided that the UK should give up its membership of the European Union.
After all, if the campaign was one contested amidst claim and counter-claim with boasts of a post-withdrawal ‘bonus’ which now appear to be anything but likely, were the negotiations ever going to be straightforward?
Whilst politicians remain mired in disagreement and seemingly disingenuous debate, business continues to do its best to plan for the future.
It’s a truly difficult proposition, given that even after the striking of a draft agreement with Brussels and three votes in the UK parliament (one in the House of Lords and two in the Commons), clarity is conspicuous by its absence.
For companies which only trade within the UK’s borders, the prospects are bad enough.
However, the stakes are magnified for those firms which rely on cross-border business.
It is one reason why the Institute of Directors (IoD) this week reported that almost one-third of British companies were looking to relocate operations - in whole or in part - to circumvent the possibility of consequent customs complications (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47083214)
The IoD described its survey results as providing “worrying signs”, noting that the best way to stop the exodus would be for Government to offer “certainty for businesses”, in the form of an agreed deal to leave the EU - a soft Brexit, if you will.
Such findings will be all to familiar to those companies which do business with the UK’s nearest EU neighbour, the Republic of Ireland.
Although it has a population of less than five million, Ireland generates £26.6 billion worth of sales for UK firms every year, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/internationaltrade/articles/whodoestheuktradewith/2017-02-21), making it Britain’s fifth biggest global trading partner.
Leaving aside how a post-Brexit Britain will engage with the rest of the EU, it’s fairly clear that any change in how both Ireland and the UK do business could be calamitous.
That’s a point all too readily accepted by the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who has refused to play “games” or abandon Ireland in the manner which some Brexiteers wish (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/we-won-t-abandon-ireland-or-the-backstop-jean-claude-juncker-insists-jn239z2k0?shareToken=25079ad28f34b172ec609452a9ea20f1). As a business which maintains operations in both the Republic of Ireland and the UK, we have naturally maintained a close interest in how the Brexit talks have inched forward and what impact they have already had on the many clients in a wide variety of different industrial sectors which we support.
In the absence of the sort of certainty identified by the IoD as being vital to business strategy, we have being doing our best to help clients put structures and practices in place which may prove essential when withdrawal finally happens - whether it’s on the scheduled date of March the 29th or even later.
We have been liaising with officials in both London and Brussels, in an effort to ascertain what more can actually be done without having a political solution in place as well as reinforcing our infrastructure to make us more robust on our clients’ behalf.
For instance, we have taken on more staff with the intention of meeting the demands of those companies which require import or export customs entry paperwork cleared through the night to try and avoid delays.
The possibility of extra paperwork is expected to be one outcome if rules drawn up by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) come into force in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Tariffs (as yet, of course, unspecified) and border controls might well also be introduced, something which doesn’t augur well for those shipping to the Republic of Ireland.
We remain committed to the idea of the free movement of goods between the UK and the Republic of Ireland - and, in fact, the rest of Europe too.
We also stand ready to do our utmost to help clients respond to the challenges which Brexit will undoubtedly represent, even if that means having to react at short notice to a rapidly-shifting political and commercial environment.
Whilst the status of Britain’s relationship with Europe appears likely to undergo historic change, the desire of the UK to engage in foreign trade will not and we will still be here to facilitate it.