Brexit talks will produce many areas of tough negotiation in which business has a vital role to play. One of those areas, in which the IoD is already working with firms, concerns untangling the knotty question of the Irish border, says Allie Renison
Having already published its opening proposals for business and government on coping with Brexit, the IoD is now taking its case to both Whitehall and Brussels. I recently joined a Northern Irish business delegation to meet key EU officials, or at least those MEPs who will play an instrumental role in working with the European Commission (EC) as it begins negotiations. The EC itself is still cautious about meeting UK stakeholders at this early stage.
Despite being a hot topic in the UK since June, it is indeed still early for substantive discussion in Brussels. All corners of the EU stuck firm to its “no negotiation without notification” mantra. So, while they have talked among themselves, until the prime minister officially started the Article 50 process on 29 March it had proved difficult to hold even informal discussions. Since Theresa May’s letter however, the EU has moved at lightning speed, with heads of state agreeing its negotiating guidelines and the commission publishing draft negotiating directives. It remains to be seen if the UK will match this detailed transparency or keep its cards close to its chest and – it hopes – its options open.
For all the current punchy rhetoric on both sides, our delegation found an extremely sympathetic and constructive ear among EU lawmakers on the “Irish question”. Currently without an executive to fully represent their interests in Whitehall, Northern Irish firms are at a double disadvantage in dealing with Brexit. Many business leaders from our delegation are based in border communities and have been involved, personally and professionally, in making the Good Friday agreement work. They spoke plainly of the practical impact the return of a hard border would have on their supply chains, all of which are totally integrated with the Irish Republic’s.
We stressed to MEPs the need for urgency, which the EU’s approach to negotiation sequencing does not fully appreciate. Brussels insists “sufficient progress” be made on the withdrawal agreement before the future UK-EU relationship and transitional arrangements are discussed. With an ostensible two-year time limit, this could mean trade is not discussed for some time. Many firms will need to know by next summer at the latest whether changes are to be in place for April 2019. The Irish question is earmarked by the EU as a key priority for the withdrawal agreement, but there is far less detail on what this means compared with, say, citizens’ rights and financial settlement. However, we left Brussels feeling that MEPs – including key negotiator Guy Verhofstadt – understand it is impossible to tackle the Irish issue without simultaneously addressing what kind of customs and wider trade arrangement the UK and EU will come to – even if only on a temporary basis.
There is recognition that a transitional period will have to be discussed soon, judging from our talks with states’ permanent representations. It was also clear that Ireland is pulling out all the stops to convince Brussels that approaching talks with long- term co-operation in mind is imperative for the collective good of Europe. But it requires better communication from the UK about its objectives and options for customs/trade arrangements in order to limit the potential for cross-border disruption. Those talks must involve business leaders, on whom they will have a tangible impact. Business wants nothing more than to work with all sides to move the discussion from challenges to solutions and outcomes.