Business groups slam U.K. government over Brexit
“Division and disorganization.”
That’s the stinging assessment of the British government’s performance delivered Monday by the British Chambers of Commerce.
It called on Prime Minister Theresa May to end confusion over Brexit that is hurting the economy.
“Public disagreements between cabinet ministers in recent weeks have only served to undermine business confidence, not just on Brexit negotiations, but also on the many issues where firms need to see clear action from government closer to home,” said BCC Director General Adam Marshall.
The extraordinary warning by the group, which represents thousands of companies employing 6 million workers, comes as May’s Conservative Party meets this week for its annual conference. The event has already been marred by public infighting and division.
Related: The CNNMoney Brexit jobs tracker
Fifteen months have passed since Britain voted to leave the European Union, but rifts within May’s government about the best exit strategy appear as wide as ever.
The latest kerfuffle involves a red line drawn by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who insists that any transitional period following Britain’s formal departure in March 2019 must not last “a second” more than two years. That’s a variation on the policy put forward by his boss, who has left room for the period to be slightly longer.
It may seem like a minor policy difference, but the transitional arrangements are vital to businesses and foreign investors trying to plan for life after Brexit.
The BCC says it members want a transition lasting at least three years, as well as progress on the future trading relationship with the EU by the end of 2017.
“They will judge the government’s progress on Brexit by this yardstick — not by public speeches or pronouncements — and will take investment and hiring decisions accordingly,” Marshall said.
Uncertainly is already dragging down the U.K. economy, which is now the slowest growing in Europe and the G7.
Related: Expats really don’t want to live in Brexit Britain
The government’s immediate task is picking up the pace of exit talks, which were triggered six months ago.
The EU is pressing Britain to settle its financial obligations to the bloc and deal with the border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. The question of how to secure the rights of millions of citizens who have settled in Britain or Europe must also be resolved.
Europe has made clear that significant progress must be made on all three issues before talks begin on the future of Britain’s trading relationship with its biggest export market.
A fourth round of negotiations last week produced some progress. But there was still no breakthrough.
Many are losing patience. The Confederation of British Industry, another business group, issued a rare joint statement with labor unions last week that described the lack of progress on citizens’ rights as “intolerable.”
“It is a blight on the values of our nations,” the CBI and Trades Union Congress said. “Millions of workers and thousands of firms are today united in their call to leaders on both sides to find an urgent solution. A clear guarantee… is needed within weeks.”
Treasury boss Philip Hammond, who has advocated a gradual exit from the EU, said the government gets it.
“If we don’t give businesses clarity about the future, they will have to make decisions assuming the worst possible outcome,” he said in a radio interview.
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