UK business needs ‘ocean of answers’ on Brexit, says ICAS chief

Following prime minister Theresa May‘s recent announcement of the 12 objectives for Brexit negotiations, Anton Colella, chief executive of ICAS, has said that while the 12-point plan has answered some questions, there remains “an ocean of answers required by British business”.

Colella’s comments come as ICAS issued a wider response to the 12 priorities outlined by May on 17 January on key topics, such as legislation, immigration and trade.

“The calculation we are all trying to make is – will my business be better or worse off after Brexit? The answer to that will still be elusive in most British boardrooms,” said Colella.

Certainty, control, clarity

In her Brexit speech, May said she understood that certainty was important to businesses and pledged to provide “as much certainty as possible” throughout the negotiations. The prime minister also set out plans to “take back control of our laws”, which will be interpreted by UK judges, rather than the European Court of Justice.

ICAS reacted positively to the pledge for certainty. David Wood, executive director, policy leadership said: “This is crucial. Business and the markets do not like uncertainty, although they have coped reasonably well with it in the past year.

“Sterling reacted well to what was seen as a clearer roadmap, and the government’s intention ‘to provide business, the public sector, and everybody with as much certainty as possible as we move through the process’ is to be welcomed.”

ICAS backed the adoption of existing EU law into UK law, favouring a smooth transition following the UK’s exit from the EU. James Barbour, director, policy leadership, also raised concerns that, while respecting the democratic process, allowing parliament to vote on the final deal agreed with the EU could “open the possibility that the deal could be rejected”.

“Where would this leave the UK, or indeed the EU?” he added.

Immigration, EU citizens, workers’ rights

While the prime minister asserted that “openness to international talent must remain one of this country’s most distinctive assets”, she backed controlling immigration and said that this was not possible with free movement to Britain from Europe. However, she said that the government wanted to “guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states” as soon as possible. In addition, May maintained that workers’ rights will be “fully protected”, as EU law is translated into UK regulations.

ICAS’ executive director, policy leadership, David Wood, said that businesses “will be encouraged by the recognition that we do need migrants”. He added however that it is not yet clear “what type of system will be introduced to ensure that there is control over immigration”.

With regard to EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in the EU, Colella said: “ICAS particularly welcomes that the UK Government intends to seek certainty, as soon as practicable, on the rights for EU nationals in Britain, and British nationals in the EU.

“A number of ICAS members are impacted by the continuing uncertainty over such matters.”

Wood added: “For many people, one of the main benefits of the UK being a member of the EU was the increased employee rights and protections which Brussels introduced. Therefore, it is welcomed that the prime minister intends not just to translate those existing rights under EU law into UK law, but also to build on them.”

Trade, innovation, cooperation

In relation to trade, May said that the government will “pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union” to allow “the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s Member States”.

This did not mean membership of the single market, May added.

The prime minster also said that it was “time for Britain to get out into the world and rediscover its role as a great, global, trading nation”. This would be achieved through trade agreements with countries from outside the EU.

“After leaving the EU, the UK will be able to negotiate its own trade agreements both with the EU, but also all other countries around the globe. Ideally, as the prime minister states, the freest possible deals in goods and services will be negotiated.  However, it remains to be seen what will be the terms of any such agreements,” said ICAS’ Barbour.

Barbour added that the objective for the UK to be the best place for science and innovation was “crucial”.

“Collaboration with our European partners and indeed other partners, on major science, research, and technology initiatives is essential to build the government’s vision of the UK,” he said. “This, however, could prove to be challenging as the EU Member States look to their own futures in the EU, post Brexit; some may see this as an opportunity to weaken the UK’s strong position in science and innovation.”

The prime minister also stated that the UK would continue to cooperate EU countries on crime, terrorism and foreign affairs. “I…want our future relationship with the European Union to include practical arrangements on matters of law enforcement and the sharing of intelligence material with our EU allies,” she said.

This was backed by ICAS’ Colella. He said: “Given the high standing of UK security forces and the common threats of crime and terrorism faced by all EU Member States it is hoped that the UK will continue to co-operate with its European partners in such matters.

“It is, however, likely to be more difficult than in the past and efforts to co-ordinate policy on foreign affairs are certainly more likely to be fraught with difficulties.”

Phased process of implementation

Looking past the two-year Brexit negotiation period, the prime minister stated that a phased process of implementation will be carried out in order to give businesses enough time to “plan and prepare for those new arrangements”.

“We will seek to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge, and we will do everything we can to phase in the new arrangements we require as Britain and the EU move towards our new partnership,” said May.

Reacting to the statement, Wood said: “Businesses should be comforted by a proposed phased-in implementation, which might vary for different issues and sectors.

“The prime minister made clear that this will not be an unlimited transitional status (reflecting ‘some kind of permanent political purgatory’), which she rightly pointed out would not be in the interest of the UK or the EU.

“It is certainly in no one’s interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability, as we change from our existing relationship to a new partnership with the EU.”

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