May urged to reassure businesses over her Brexit strategy

Theresa May

Britain’s Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May. (Justin Tallis, AFP)

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London – UK Prime
Minister

Theresa May will be urged to do more to reassure businesses about her
Brexit plans, as she begins her first serious consultation with
companies on the subject more than a year after taking office.

Having spent her first 12 months in office attacking industries for
overcharging customers and not paying staff enough, May is now trying a
more conciliatory approach.

Senior figures have been invited to sit
around the cabinet table on Thursday and offer their views. One of those
attending, Stephen Martin of the Institute of Directors lobby group,
said his members need much more information about her plans.

“While businesses are preparing for

Brexit, most have not made any concrete changes yet, so there is still a
window of opportunity for the government to convince them to hold off
triggering contingency plans,” Martin said in an emailed statement.

“Given the need for businesses to be able to adjust to trade and
migration-related changes, bridging arrangements to any new free-trade
agreement, and a phased implementation of that agreement, are
essential.”

Brexit talks in Brussels this week have been overshadowed by
infighting in May’s cabinet. Progress in reaching an agreement was
already delayed by her decision to hold a snap election, which left her
with no majority.

The UK, which has been accused by EU negotiating
chief

Michel Barnier of wasting time, must reach a deal by 2019 or risk
crashing out of the bloc, leading to tariffs and the potential flight of
businesses.

Attendees at the meeting, which will begin at 16:00, will include Chancellor of the Exchequer

Philip Hammond, Business Secretary

Greg Clark and junior Brexit minister Robin Walker, along with

Ralf Speth from Jaguar Land Rover, Tesco’s

Dave Lewis and Prudential’s

Paul Manduca. Different groups of businesses will be invited to discuss Brexit every couple of months.

The meeting will address key issues such as financial agreements,
citizens’ rights, Ireland, and trade. Unilever Chief Executive Officer
Paul Polman told reporters he’ll press May for a longer transition to
help businesses adjust to Brexit.

Ahead of the meeting, international broadcasters threatened to move
operations as early as next spring if they don’t get more clarity.
Broadcasters face similar issues to global banks as they use UK
licenses to transmit into the EU.

“Companies need certainty sooner rather than later,” said Adam Minns,
executive director of COBA, a lobby group representing Discovery
Communications, 21st Century Fox and The Walt Disney Company
in the UK.

“No one running a business of any scale can wait to the end
of negotiations before deciding what to do.”

Disaster warning

May’s meeting comes as academics warned that leaving the EU with no
deal would lead to “economic disaster” and legal limbo. It might render
UK nuclear plants unable to operate and British airlines unable to fly
to and from the continent, the UK in A Changing Europe research
programme said on Thursday in a study.

It also found that Britons residing in
the EU and EU citizens in the UK would be left with no clear legal
status.

“A chaotic Brexit would, at least in the short term, spawn a
political mess, a legal morass and an economic disaster,” said Anand
Menon, the group’s director. “‘No deal’ is an outcome the British
government must strive to avoid.”

Even as May’s rhetoric toward business has softened since the
election, some in her cabinet continue to insist that what companies
consider a catastrophic outcome – leaving the EU without a deal – is
something the UK could live with.

Trade Secretary

Liam Fox, who is due to make a speech at the World Trade Organisation in
Geneva on Thursday, said Britain could “survive” with no deal and
pointed to trading opportunities beyond the EU. He reiterated that as
part of leaving the EU, Britain will “by definition” leave the bloc’s
single market and customs union.

“We don’t want to have no deal, it’s much better that we have a deal,
we can of course survive with no deal and we have to go into a
negotiation with those on the other side knowing that’s what we think,”
Fox told BBC Radio.

“Understandably we’re spending a lot of time talking
about Brexit, but of course our trade with Europe is the minority of
our trade,” Fox said. “Ninety percent of global growth in the next
decade will be outside Europe.”

Failure to reach a deal would also have serious political and
economic implications for Northern Ireland, the report by UK in A
Changing Europe said.

The group identified two scenarios that could lead to a chaotic
Brexit: One through talks breaking down acrimoniously, with the UK
ceasing to pay its EU contributions and ending the supremacy of EU law
in Britain with immediate effect, and the other with no agreement being
reached within the two-year period, and no extension granted.

The opposition Labour Party was quick to jump on the study’s
findings. “The prime minister needs to end the no deal rhetoric and
commit to avoiding a cliff edge for the economy,” said

Keir Starmer, who speaks for the party on Brexit.

The UK in a Changing Europe is based at King’s College London and
receives government funding through the Economic and Social Research
Council.

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