Too much ideology and too little urgency on Brexit, says CBI chief

"The UK team can't agree with itself, let alone with the EU," says CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn.

Leading business lobby group the CBI has called for a fundamental change of approach on Brexit to protect UK jobs and growth. In a speech released today to be delivered tomorrow, CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn makes the case for a “good Brexit for Britain”. 

The CBI believes that as a first step a status quo, jobs-first transition deal needs to be finalised in the next 70 days to remove the cliff edge for firms. The UK also needs a united view on the future deal by April - allowing talks to begin that month and unambiguous heads of terms agreed with the EU by October. 

Critical to this progress, says Fairbairn, will be a rapid agreement on the shape of a new deal. She believes that neither the Canada nor the Norway models represent the best solution for business or for Britain. “Both sets of negotiators must revisit red lines and put economics before politics to protect jobs and communities on both sides of the Channel,” she says. 

Fairbairn is proposing that a comprehensive customs union between the UK and the EU should be on the table as a practical, real world answer that goes a long way towards solving some of the complex issues, including the Irish border, raised by the UK’s exit from the EU. “A good customs union, built on lessons learnt from others, is best for jobs, wages and living standards after the transition period ends,” says Fairbairn.

“Time is running out and businesses urgently need decisions to protect UK jobs and growth,” she says. “Clarity, flexibility and urgency are vital to get a “good Brexit for Britain” and this requires a fundamental change in approach,” Fairbairn says.

"Time is running out and businesses urgently need decisions to protect UK jobs and growth. The UK team can't agree with itself, let alone with the EU. There's too much ideology and too little urgency. It doesn't have to be like this. It's about reaching deals that work for both sides, based on evidence."

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general, CBI

In a swipe at the government, Fairbairn said: “The UK team can’t agree with itself, let alone with the EU. There’s too much ideology, too little urgency. It doesn’t have to be like this. If there’s one thing business does know, it’s negotiation. It’s about reaching deals that work for both sides, based on evidence.”

Calling for greater clarity for businesses, Fairbairn said: “It’s about the UK being clear on what we want, the consequences if we get it wrong and the opportunities if we get it right. The current debate isn’t delivering clarity, it’s delivering contradiction and confusion. To move forward, we must consign the labels ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ to history. The overriding goal now is a good Brexit. This requires a profound change of approach: instead of ideology, we need facts and evidence to make the hard choices.”

On the business case for a customs union with the EU, Fairbairn said: “The idea behind a customs union is simple: a single set of tariffs for goods imported from outside the EU, enabling tariff free trade within it. It brings no obligations over freedom of movement, or payment and removes some of the heaviest trade barriers. Importantly, it would go a long way towards solving the border problem in Ireland.”

Commenting on the CBI chief’s stance, chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), Nelson Ogunshakin, said: “We urgently need a more pragmatic approach to the Brexit negotiations and this timely proposal by the CBI is an attempt to provide just that. However, in our view a customs’ union only goes some of the way to solving the conundrum of delivering a Brexit which is both politically acceptable and economically responsible.

 “A customs union by itself does not provide the assurances needed by our sector. Our industry needs continued unfettered access to skilled EU nationals and ACE’s recent research highlighted that a fifth of larger firms in our sector would consider moving staff abroad if that wasn’t the case. Equally, a customs union will do little for the 175,000 EU workers in construction whose jobs are at risk post-Brexit. All of this has huge knock on effects for the delivery of key infrastructure across the country and on the economic stimulus that this provides.

 “The political and economic consequences of Brexit are wide ranging and complex and cannot be solved just by remaining in the customs union. For the UK to remain in the customs union but not a member of the EU would result in a considerable loss of influence in Brussels, with no corresponding economic gain.

“ACE supports a transition deal that will allow market access in the short-term while leading to a comprehensive and unique trade deal that allows for economic collaboration with both EU and Non-EU markets.”

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