It’s been a tough few weeks for those grappling with EU exit; just as the dust was beginning to settle on a tumultuous time post-Chequers, Donald Trump arrived in the UK and declared that the Government’s soft Brexit plan would torpedo a UK-US trade deal.
However, while it might not be universally popular, the Government’s new policy does at least offer a clear concept of the Brexit they hope to achieve — and it’s one that appears to have common sense, rather than dogmatic ideology, as its lead driver.
Our relationship with Europe is a critical one and will continue to be so in the future, but it is undeniable that differences remain between the vision of the future held by the British people who voted to leave and the vision held by those who didn’t and our fellow EU members.
However, the interconnectivity and interdependence of the British and wider European economic and trade infrastructure means that the possibility of a sudden, harsh breaking of ties between the UK and the structures of the single market and customs union would deliver unwarranted chaos for UK employers and our economy.
As the Brexit deadline draws closer, it becomes ever-more apparent that we need a relationship that can facilitate steady, well-considered, incremental change over a longer period of time instead of the jolt of a wholesale departure purely on grounds of the uninformed (and misinformed) referendum of 2016.
Evolution rather than revolution must be our strategic approach — it is fundamental to retaining business confidence, safeguarding jobs and protecting our economy; and thereby mitigating the potential impact that might derive from the separation.
It is clear that leaving the EU, regardless of what that ultimately might mean, will impact on both remaining EU members and ourselves here in the UK — to that extent we are all in this together, and we all have much to lose if things aren’t resolved well. So surely, it is only common sense to try to manage the process so all parties are able to fully appreciate the implications of a new separatist relationship as it unfolds over time.
Is there a way to provide clarity of interim operating conditions between UK and EU that will safeguard business and trade for the time-being, that doesn’t commit either the EU or the UK to a longer term structure, and thereby giving all of us time to gauge how things unfold, to understand with more accuracy what the likely implications will be and only then make definitive decisions about our future working together?
Surely that way, long-term decisions will be more transparent, meaningful, and successful, and based more on fact rather than the ludicrous claims and allegations we were subjected to during the referendum.
Regardless of whether you believe the technicalities of the terms of the Government’s latest proposal can deliver on the objective of creating an independent trade policy for the UK that enables us to set our own non-EU tariffs and reach separate trade deals, the fact that they are targeting something that can deliver both ‘continuity and change’ is an approach that should be supported.
Major employers across a range of sectors — including the likes of Airbus, JLR and BMW — have issued warnings that operations may have to be relocated to the continent, should we fail to reach an agreement that enables smooth, pan-European access to markets, highlighting that protecting the short-term certainty of jobs and business is of equal importance to any ambitious long-term plans that could be delivered.
However, the ability to access global labour markets and explore skillsets from the wider world whilst managing the impact that it might have on national services is a fine balancing act, which many believe is not possible when the UK does not have full control of its borders with European states.
With the UK employment rate remaining at a record high and vast numbers of jobs remaining unfilled, it is important to appreciate that Brexit offers us an opportunity to shape our national workforce into one that accentuates our strengths and addresses our skills shortages, whilst ensuring this isn’t compromised through aggressive changes that threaten present stability.
The famous adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day is particularly apt — taking the time to ensure that changes around immigration policy, employment law and regulatory frameworks are made in a measured fashion, and are in accordance with how well Britain and the EU (and the rest of the world!) adapts to this period of transition is simply, good business sense.
We have a unique opportunity to build a new future for the country but a scorched earth policy to the infrastructure that has supported British (and Welsh) jobs and businesses is not the way to do it.
As we arrive at the sharp end of the current Brexit negotiations, the focus on a steady re-working of the national model into one that can match the expectations of the British people and British business is a welcome one. Evolution not revolution.
Matt Southall is Group Managing Director of Wales’ leading specialist recruiter, Acorn acornpeople.com