What does Brexit mean to SW businesses?
On the 15th June, an associate from our Dispute Resolution team, Lucy Mills, headed to Colston Hall for ‘The West Decides: Business and the future of the European Union’. As a firm we represent businesses every day, and so we wanted to dig a little bit deeper than the rhetoric that has been filling the front pages. In practice, what would Brexit mean for our clients, and how will we navigate the landscape?
The event was a full-on affair, put on by the Business West Initiative, with two panel discussions between national and local experts from business, politics and economics. The key note address came from Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Former Foreign Secretary, and we heard a diverse range of voices and opinions, from the President of Airbus Group UK and the Director of the Centre for European Reform, to the Former Independent Advisor to the Treasury.
’A huge decision in our hands’
From the upstart of the evening, we got down to business. It was clear that this was to be a practical, pragmatic discussion. The event kicked off with Professor Steve West, President of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and West of England Initiative homing in on the crucial nature of the historic referendum. He was clear to note that this is a profound decision which will affect us all for some time. As it stands, we’re not enlightened, with politicians favouring noisy campaigning over cold, hard facts. He opened by attempting to counter the noise with some facts: a recent Business West Survey of 700 SMEs showed that 62% were in favour of remain, 22% in favour of leave and 16% were undecided.
‘Going back to square one’
The key note address was made by Sir Malcolm Rifkind who had worked under Margaret Thatcher as her Foreign Secretary. He was keen to highlight that we joined the EU not for economic or trade reasons, but to work together to ensure large-scale war would not happen in Europe again. That end-goal has, so far, been achieved, and he noted that we should not underestimate the stability the EU has brought us. If we leave, this could potentially lead to a domino effect led by strong eurosceptics in Europe, and could result in gradual fragmentation. He noted that the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world and that it could certainly survive if we left the EU. However, he questioned whether the UK economy would prosper on its own.
‘If we remain, we can’t rest on our laurels’
It was clear that while there are undeniable uncertainties if we leave, there will also be considerable uncertainties if we remain – and reform should be at the heart of any decisions moving forward. A big problem that we have at the moment, which lies with the politicians to sort out, is the widespread ignorance about what it means for the UK to be part of the EU. It was made clear that if we remain, the UK needs to be much more upfront about its involvement in the EU, and effort needs to be made to educate people so we can collectively be involved and engaged. Also, it’s important to note that a vote for remain isn’t necessarily a vote for forever, if there is still unrest about the EU, we can have another referendum in years to come.
‘What it all means for business’
Over the two panel debates, recurring themes were visited, including discussion around the single market and its pros and cons, and whether an in-between model like Norway would work. From a business perspective, there were plenty of arguments for and against, including the fact that even if we were out of the EU, exporting regulations would still have to be adhered to, while others argued that as a trader, we are more attractive internationally as a single market. It was pointed out that the single market would enable us to keep trading, but we would lose our voice in the mix. Amongst all the opinions, there was a general consensus that the decision does not come down to whether you’re a small or large company but which sector you’re in.
Looking towards Thursday
The key take aways about your vote on Thursday? The House of Commons will take the final answer – the power really is with the people. Remember we are making the decision on behalf of people who can’t vote and on behalf of future generations. And, whatever happens, we can’t turn our back on Europe – what matters in Europe will matter to us. We’ll just have to wait till Friday to see what that relationship will look like in the future.