Business after Brexit: how to prepare for a cliff edge departure?

01 December 2017

The Brexit negotiations are ongoing and it's still unclear what our relationship will look like after the 31 March 2019: inside or outside the Customs Union and Single Market, subject to WTO rules or a specific free trade deal with the EU? There is only one certainty and that is that there is nothing certain when it comes to how the EU referendum result will be implemented in reality. Having met a number of business owners and representative organisations over the past few weeks I am sure of one thing - North East business is not currently ready for the Brexit shock ahead. This should be a terrifying thought for remainers and brexiteers alike.

In this situation, there's a real danger that we are collectively adopting a 'Denis Norden' approach to Brexit believing that it will be 'Alright on the Night' post-Brexit. Rather than negotiating to open trade, for the first time in history we are negotiating to reduce trade access through our exit from the world's largest trading bloc. Ostrich-like tactics are a recipe for disaster as since article 50 has been triggered, no action/preparation means a brutal Brexit not the status quo. It is only by consciously withdrawing article 50, which we could still do until March 2019, that the status quo would legally apply.

I have been told time and again that businesses just don’t have the information they need to make sure they are properly prepared. The largest slice of blame for this lies at the doors of the current Tory government’s inept handling of the Brexit negotiations. Over a year since the vote they obviously still don’t have a clear plan. The levels of incompetence on show would be funny if not so terrifying.

However, the problem is wider and many businesses have only ever known life inside the EU. They have been able to find products, services and staff from nearly anywhere on the continent as easily as if it were readily available at home. They have never had to worry about the complexities of international import and export procedures and the paperwork that closely follows (not to mention any tariffs that may be imposed).

The paperwork connected with international trade outside the EU is time consuming. Any business currently trading around the world will know this and have specialist staff to deal with it. Businesses that only trade within the EU will not. Their learning curve ahead will be short, steep and potentially expensive. So it came as no surprise that a recent study conducted by the North East of England Chamber of Commerce found that nearly 9 in 10 businesses in the constituency I represent want to retain membership of the Single Market and Customs Union after Brexit.

The government recently hired thousands of new tax inspectors in preparation for Brexit. The problem is, they are to be used for enforcement - collecting taxes and duties and punishing those who are not in compliance with whatever new rules are imposed - not advising and supporting businesses through this monumental change in from the status quo.

The depressing truth is, if you are a small business trying to plan ahead and prepare for Brexit the government is doing nothing to help you. There is no phone line, no support, no awareness or information campaign. We have learned that even the basic impact assessments undertaken by the government, where and if they exist, won't be forthcoming. The biggest challenge facing British businesses in a lifetime and this Tory government has left them high and dry.

During the referendum campaign we heard an array of farcical, oversimplified statements from many members of the current Cabinet about how easy it was going to be in the sunny uplands of Brexit. Now that the Brexit reality is starting to bite I implore them to forget the rhetoric, chest thumping and easy sound bites, focusing instead on the boring, minute details that will actually determine the future of many of our regions small and medium sized businesses. 

To start, they can make the resources available to support, inform and reassure the business community regarding the significant challenges ahead.  Helping our businesses prosper after Brexit is not an option, it should be this government’s priority.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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