9 March 2017 | By Carolyn Fairbairn Insight

Brexit: reflections from Europe

Insight: Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general

Our closest neighbours remain deeply anxious about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union but, at the same time, goodwill runs deep, as does the desire for a constructive outcome

It’s a good time to talk, and particularly to our business partners in Europe. Since January, the CBI’s president Paul Drechsler and I have been on the road across Europe. We have met business leaders and officials in Paris, Berlin, Malta and Geneva. We have also welcomed senior political delegations from Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary and Norway in London. Our goal has been simple: to gather insights and advice from European firms and politicians in advance of the triggering of Article 50.

A number of threads stand out. First, our closest neighbours remain deeply anxious about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. They talk openly about their regret for the loss of a constructive ally on many issues - trade, security, free market policies. But at the same time goodwill runs deep and the desire for a constructive outcome was present in all our conversations.

The willingness to work together to secure a deal that benefits both the UK and the EU is there

It is important we understand the context of our neighbours’ evaluation of the upcoming Brexit negotiation. For them, the preservation of the integrity and ongoing success of the EU is paramount. Their weighing of options will start from this point. We were able to confirm robustly that this objective is shared by UK businesses, for many of which the EU 27 will remain their largest market and partner. In practice, there will loud voices arguing that the UK cannot “cherry-pick” the benefits of EU membership without shouldering its responsibilities.

For many, the tone and content of the Prime Minister’s Article 50 letter will be vital in setting the stage for the discussions to follow. At the same time the importance of the French and German elections cannot be overlooked: it’s clear that Brexit may not be top of the agenda for our largest European neighbours.

But the willingness to work together to secure a deal that benefits both the UK and the EU is there. And it is clear that the voice of business across Europe will be crucial if we are to make a success of Brexit.

The CBI has a unique role to play in building a strong business voice across Europe. We will aim not only to make the case for a thriving European economy rooted in barrier-free trade and the closest possible economic partnership, but also to bring back to the UK the perspective of EU business. We need to cut through the politics of the negotiations. This can only achieved if businesses across Europe speak with one voice and continually bring the arguments back to jobs, growth and prosperity for all our citizens.  

In the meantime, we will be arguing for collaborative progress to be demonstrated early in the negotiations. The best example would be the reciprocal guarantee of the right to remain for existing EU citizens in our respective countries, a goal shared by many businesses and politicians I met during my European trips.

Back in the UK, the CBI will continue to work closely with government to ensure that the needs of business and the risks of a cliff-edge departure from the EU are well understood. The CBI’s December report Making a Success of Brexit has been widely recognised for its depth of sectoral analysis and emphasis on the need for a whole economy approach. We are constantly consulting our business network and will continue to bring this insight to government to ensure we grasp both the complexities and the opportunities created by the Brexit decision.

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