Theresa May has triggered Article 50, delivering on her promise to the British public to do this by the end of March 2017 and beginning Britain's historic departure from the European Union. It is no secret that I voted to remain last June and although the reality of Brexit has sunk in I am still nervous about what the future holds. We should hopefully get an indication of how negotiations will go when Donald Tusk publishes the EU’s negotiating guidelines and the remaining 27 EU nations meet for their first summit next month. Tusk has said the priority will be to provide ‘clarity’ to EU residents, businesses and member states about the talks ahead. However I do hope that the summit next month will also offer some certainty and clarity to UK residents and businesses as well.
An uncertain 18 months
Now that Article 50 has been triggered we are about the enter one of the most uncertain times in British history as we try and negotiate ourselves the best deal going forward. Michel Barnier has already warned that the UK could face nuclear fuel shortages, long queues at Dover and ‘serious disruption’ to air traffic if Brexit talks fail, highlighting just some of the challenges ahead for the UK negotiating team. It is crucially important that we get this right and I urge May and her government to consider viewpoints from the wider political spectrum whilst doing so. I am glad to see Labour finally stepping up and offering some valid opposing points with their ‘six tests’ released this week, but I think they, and other political parties must be realistic when making demands. Labour have insisted they will not back any Brexit bill unless we ensure access to the same benefits currently enjoyed within the single market, a demand I doubt will be agreed. Focus needs to shift towards getting the best deal out of the EU, protecting our current relationships, and ensuring UK citizens and businesses have a chance of success and the greatest possible access to the single market we can negotiate.
The current uncertainty across the UK is not helped by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP north of the border who voted in favour of second referendum on Scottish independence earlier this week, dividing us even further at a time when we must stand as one. It is clear that May and Sturgeon do not agree on the matter and that Westminster has a battle on its hands to ensure the union stays intact. In her recent visit to Scotland, May said she was committed to building a new partnership with Europe and insisted that the strength and stability of our union is vitally important in doing so. However I believe that May has no choice but to allow Sturgeon and her party to hold another independence vote, but I do agree that “now is not the time” and if such a vote is to take place it must wait until after the Brexit negotiations are complete. A second vote on independence within the next two years would only draw attention away from the matter at hand, and could harm negotiations and jeopardise the UK economy longer-term.
I also hope that focus does not stray away from other pressing matters here in the UK. There has already been criticism that the current government is in crisis after Philip Hammond’s U-turn over his National Insurance plans, a move that will surely go down as one of the most humiliating political moments in recent years. It has called into question the support May has from their own party, and how equipped they are to steer the ship through the next 18 months. We need a strong government that is fully committed to helping the UK and all its citizens, and getting a favourable Brexit deal is only one of the many challenges we face.
My biggest fear however is the short and long-term consequences Brexit is going to have on the UK recruitment sector. The UK labour market is heavily reliant on the knowledge and experience of people not just here in the UK, but across the whole of Europe, and Brexit will undoubtedly impact this short-term. For this reason I would urge May to seriously consider our access to the European labour market, and ensure any new deal enables employers to bring in skilled and unskilled workers from outside the UK. We need access to the EU labour market to help support business growth and address labour shortages, especially while negotiations are taking place. I do hope that longer-term, Brexit will have a positive impact, as UK businesses will need to put a greater focus and emphasis on the importance of developing and hiring home-grown talent.
One thing is certain, our future is now firmly in the hands of the negotiating teams on both sides and May needs to put her best foot forward to ensure Britain’s future. It is clear that Tusk’s priority is ultimately deciding on the terms of our divorce and how that will impact the remaining EU nations, rather than focusing on negotiating our new trade deal. In contrast, May’s priority should be to ensure that any exit fees and debts are kept to an absolute minimum. As it stands, the estimated figure is between €40-60 billion and if an agreement cannot be reached, I fear we will be left in danger of having no EU trade deal in place at the end of two year negotiation period.
I am sure small business owners across the country will anxiously anticipate the negotiating guidelines and the start of formal discussions, and like me will keep a close eye on the overall process. I just hope that May and her government will put any internal differences aside and pull together to ensure they deliver on their promise to represent every person in the UK during the negotiations – including EU nationals, whose status after Brexit has yet to be settled. Now is the time for our country to come together, and I hope that citizens and businesses from across the UK can now finally accept that Brexit is happening and turn their attention to securing our future on the global stage. There is no going back now, and we must focus on the future together.