Liz McAreavey: Continuity will be Brexit watchword for now

Liz McAreavey is chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce
Liz McAreavey is chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce
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Dry January, Veganuary, new gym memberships and short-lived healthy habits – just some of the New Year’s Resolutions people promise themselves following the festive break. Many of us are guilty of it, myself included – we like to think we’re all merchants of change but the reality is that it’s quite difficult to effect radical departure from our “norm”.

That in mind, this year I’ve taken a different approach; I’m keeping it simple and just have a list of books to read and places to visit. Maybe I’m getting older and wiser, or maybe I’ve started to realise real change takes time, focus and commitment and is an ongoing journey. Real change isn’t a random date in time to achieve immediate results or instant gratification.

Perhaps that’s why Brexit is causing us all such consternation. It’s a big change, and a difficult change to completely understand. And what’s becoming apparent is this is a long-term play.

Not only have both Brexiteers and Remainers raised the option of a second referendum, but now Juncker and Barnier seem to be to be holding this out for consideration. However, most businesses seem resolved to get on with it, and even former staunch Remainers are preparing their businesses for the seemingly inevitable change.

Phase 1 of Brexit is now complete. This was the gateway to preparing for our future relationship with the EU, which is the Phase 2 part. This may take a bit longer than the March 2019 horizon and talk of a two-year transition period seems to be generally accepted as a minimum.

The UK Government is also building capacity, capability, defining priorities and preparing for proper negotiation with the rest of the world. But there are constraints, whilst the scoping and planning is ongoing we are still part of the EU until Brexit is complete. Trade agreements can take between 15 months (the fastest ever) to 20-years plus. Meanwhile, even if we have agreement with the 26 EU members, it’s likely we will default to WTO schedules until new trade agreements can be agreed with third countries. We are currently members of the WTO both as an individual country and as part of the EU. We enjoy trade with the rest of the world through these EU agreements. When the EU becomes 26 instead of 27 countries does this negate the current EU trade agreements?

Third countries will not want to be disadvantaged by the UK leaving the EU and negotiating their own terms. Likewise, it will be hard to negotiate terms with the EU if we disadvantage them by our own trade agreements with third countries, so there are a number of plates spinning to keep all sides happy.

Ultimately, this means continuity for the foreseeable future. Day 1 of Brexit will look pretty much like it is now in terms of trade, and is likely to for the next five to ten years.

The reason for Brexit is for us to determine our own future relationships with the rest of the world, to retain sovereignty and protect our interests. This change is a long-term play. And long term, in politics, generally means change.

So in the meantime prepare for all eventualities. As John Lennon said: “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

Liz McAreavey is chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce