At a time when personal political ambitions are being pushed and ideology dominates our debate, it’s easy to forget what Brexit could mean for British jobs and the prices of products on our shelves. Business hasn’t.
The core proposal in the prime minister’s Brexit plan is for a common rulebook that allows relatively free movement of goods, food and animals. This is essential. Without it, hundreds of thousands of firms will have to go through multiple sets of tests to sell in both the UK and the EU – when right now they only need to do so once.
For complex products like cars that means lengthy, expensive tests with twice as many crash test dummies thrown against airbags. For the small luxury mattress manufacturers, this means setting fire to their handmade products twice over to pass flammability tests. It would mean delays in medicine approvals of up to three months.
And for simple products – like face masks, oven gloves or bicycle helmets – even they will have to go through the nightmare of double testing. Increasing red tape would mean prices rising in all sectors across the economy and weighing down the UK’s efforts to tackle its productivity problem.
The common rulebook is particularly important for food, which faces the highest barriers to trade. Without automatic two-way recognition, farmers and food companies would expect EU Commission inspectors at their door. That would mean checking eggs are being stored below 4C and that there are handwashing facilities for people handling raw milk. Fail those tests and any firm selling fish, meat, honey or milk won’t be able to sell to the EU at all.
All that before the food reaches the port. At the docks, checks by vets can take so long it can make the difference between selling turkeys fresh or frozen, with all the fall in value associated with that.
To avoid these barriers, any deal needs to go far beyond any basic free trade agreement. Our economy is dominated by services industries, which make up 80 per cent of the UK’s economy and support four in five jobs across the country. If we as a country are going to make a success of Brexit for both goods and services, every political party needs to raise its aspirations.
Just take the UK’s £1bn broadcasting sector. Currently, there are over 700 UK TV channels that broadcast into the EU using a single Ofcom licence that is valid for all EU member states. Ensuring continued access for TV channels – not to mention the UK’s unrivalled financial and insurance businesses, its booming digital, tech and creative industries – will allow the UK’s already thriving service industry to continue to grow and create jobs.
And for services firms, people – not goods – are their greatest assets. The ability to move technicians, advisors, and sales representatives around the EU is vital to supporting UK-wide growth. This mobility is essential for fundamental tasks like repairing offshore wind turbines, aeroplane engines and giving legal advice or auditing accounts. The ability to access the skills of agricultural workers to budding tech graduates is also so important. That’s why migration must be on the table in these talks.
Businesses will be watching what happens in Brussels in the next seven days intensely. They’re not expecting the world. But they do need to see positive progress on services, food and shared rules now – let alone on Ireland, customs and transitional arrangements. That’s if they are going to have the confidence to keep investing and creating jobs at the rate our country needs.