When I assumed the Presidency of the Franco British Chamber of Commerce on June 23rd 2016, I couldn’t possibly expect the other event taking place on this now momentous date would go on to dominate headlines and take on such an important role in my life. As the Brexit referendum results came in on the morning of the 24th, my phone started ringing with journalists anxious to hear a business voice’s opinions on what this could all mean. Alas I am a business man and not a fortune teller; predictions are not my specialty. However over the last 6 months, as on that tumultuous Friday in June, I have attempted to bring a little clarity and business perspective to the Brexit debate.
For all the column “centimeters” devoted to the subject, the facts around Brexit remain in short supply. I am a business man and I like to deal in facts, so what do we actually know 6 months on. UK Prime Minister Theresa May intends to trigger Article 50 in March 2017, setting a 2 year timer ticking for the UK to leave the European Union. We do not yet know if this decision is irrevocable or not, and the UK supreme court is still to decide on what role parliament should play as the Government exerts the prerogative powers assumed to have been granted by the referendum. Hard brexit, soft brexit, slow brexit, long brexit – these terms are all used to describe what a process might look like which has not yet begun: and yet the business community is already planning what their response should look like based on this set of as yet unknown variables.
We have learned that “Brexit means Brexit” and been promised that it will be “Red white and blue Brexit” – I like the latter since it suggests that it will be a good deal for both the UK and France since those are the colours of both countries. I’m not sure that is what Theresa May meant however!
When I speak with decision makers in British and French companies; the people who will have to decide what the future looks like, what I hear is that contingency plans are being put in place which cover several likely scenarios. I can confirm that in financial services this does include moving some operations out of London, in other sectors such as manufacturing, the choice is a more complicated one. Sensible business people are planning for a range of outcomes, since this is the only pragmatic way to deal with uncertainty, all the time hoping that the UK Government and the EU deliver on their promise of “no cliff edge” – the dramatic change in trading conditions from one day to the next which truly does strike fear in the hearts of strategic planners everywhere. Against this backdrop of uncertainty I call on all parties to heed these three recommendations:
- Guarantee the status of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in France as a matter of urgent priority. Ruling out the use of people and their families as mere bargaining chips would be a clear statement that this is going to be a sensible discussion.
- Keep political considerations out of it and avoid the temptation to score easy points by “bashing” the old enemy. This is not the time for a “Punch and Judy” politics.
- Keep all options on the table and pay attention to the evidence as it potentially changes. Good leaders remain open to as much information as possible and act accordingly. Dogmatic behaviour is seldom the sign of a leader with a clear mind.
In the last few days of 2016, the Swiss parliament overturned their own referendum vote concerning free movement of EU citizens. A pragmatic decision based on their own economic interests and taken without promoting rancor. Before anybody suggests that I’m hoping that a similar thing could happen with the Brexit referendum, let me make it clear that this is not the point I wish to make. I simply highlight that good decisions are based on the most up to date information, and it is not impossible that new information relevant to the Brexit debate will become available. It would be imprudent to ignore this information, and the leaders on both sides should remain open to this fact.
Perhaps the only certainty which we can know right now is that Brexit will continue to dominate our news in the months and years to come like no other subject in recent memory. Meanwhile business people like myself will also be getting on with the day to day job of managing complex organisations and ensuring the continued prosperity of their operations. These challenges have not stopped because Brexit suddenly took over. The Franco British Chamber of Commerce will continue to support the ongoing trading activities of our British and French members whatever the Brexit landscape looks like. In more than 140 years of operations, we have been through periods of massive upheaval and have always maintained the belief that the interests of both nations can be best served by constructive and fruitful trade links. We celebrate our respective differences and the many things which we have in common.
My final word is one of thanks to our members, without whom there would be no Franco British Chamber of Commerce. It has been my pleasure to serve as President for these first 6 months, and I look forward to accompanying you all through the interesting times ahead.
The Franco-British Chamber creates opportunities and connects people, assisting members to promote and develop their activity within the Franco-British business community. The Chamber has established a strong network of public and private partners both in France and in Britain.