BREXIT: A Mountain to Climb

Friday July 29th 2016

serenaSerena Williams was one of the first Brexit losers, taking home a Championship prize worth $380,000 less compared with when she arrived for Wimbledon, just before June’s vote. The stock market dived, sterling plunged – both since recovered, somewhat. High Peak Business Club had a packed meeting on Friday July 29th at Chapel Golf Club to hear High Peak MP Andrew Bingham’s take on it.

Referendum Day was his birthday. “This is the biggest shake-up of the UK since the second world war,” he said. The campaign rhetoric felt like a race to the bottom, and probably didn’t do politics any favours. More people (over 17 million) voted Leave than have ever voted for anything in the country before. Yes, the result was technically advisory, but Andrew was firm: it was morally binding. Brexit means Brexit, there’s no going back.

But from now till we leave, Andrew reminded us, we are still in the EU. The new Brexit Department under David Davies is thinking carefully how to handle Article 50 – it’s complex, probably because it was written without anyone thinking it would be needed. Luckily, the best and brightest Civil Service brains are queuing up to work on it. Davies is considering a six months’ open consultation period, during which anyone with expertise or concerns could contribute. We’ll know more in the autumn when Parliament reconvenes. That could mean no trigger till 2017, with exit sometime in 2019. From then onwards, we are on our own: there’ll be no one else to blame.

There’s a lot of speculation what model, if any, will be followed for trade. Since EU companies currently sell us £68 billions more than we sell to them, it’s in their interests (especially Germany’s) to secure a satisfactory commercial trade deal. And, since imports from outside the EU face tariffs, we could soon be cutting those: cheaper Australian wines, cars from Japan, laptops. It’s an opportunity to rebalance many things, not just trade, such as the north-south divide, regions, rural vs urban development. The mind starts to boggle.

Tory MPS are going to be working harder, Andrew said, as they’ll be put on overseas trade delegations where they have useful business experience. The thought crossed my mind that that’s exactly what Theresa May has done with Boris Johnson: there’s a limit what mischief can be done from an airport waiting lounge.

Club members were worried over the status of EU nationals in Britain, and about obstacles to business employment and travel after Brexit. Yet as widely-travelled Dr Nigel Eastmond pointed out, it’s unlikely we will face insurmountable difficulties. If you have a dinner booking in Basle, say (not in the EU) you can have pre-dinner drinks in France, eat in Switzerland, take pudding and coffee in Germany, and never show your passport. Most business people are familiar with the ETSA regime for the USA or visas for Australia, and do not find them onerous. So the alarm might be overdone.

Other anxieties aired included the effect on European science and research programmes such as Erasmus, the European Space Agency (we’re not far from Jodrell Bank), and CERN. But, Andrew said, we’re the leading country in biomedical research, not least because we have an excellent legal framework for it, unlike many other places. That’s not going to go away.

So could this be the end of the EU as we know it? A large slice of public opinion in other EU countries is expressing similar concerns, with elections next year in Germany, France, and a rerun in Austria. The intransigence of Brussels during Cameron’s January negotiations called into question the whole ethos of the EU: politics seemed more important than trade, and no-one foresaw the result. Our mood turned a little sombre.

I was reminded of a famous precedent in business history: the slow, short-sighted response of behemoth IBM to the new computer era of Apple and Microsoft. Could the UK become a spritely start-up, showing the EU a clean pair of heels? But we’d need to get cracking in boardrooms, in schools and colleges, with more languages, with maths, science, engineering, IT. And business education. And better broadband.. but that is the subject for our October meeting, after the holidays.