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Jo James: Business must not allow Brexit to be all consuming and must carry on

By Jo James, Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce chief executive

In business, what you achieve in a negotiation – not what you bid for – is what really matters.

The Brexit process is no different, as outlined by the Prime Minister when she made her first major Brexit speech of the year on Tuesday, January 17.

The latest results of the Chamber’s quarterly economic survey show how the EU negotiations will be acutely felt by companies across Kent.

Prime Minister Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May

While businesses now have a clearer sense of Theresa May’s top-line priorities, they will come away from her speech knowing little more about the likely outcome of the Brexit negotiations than they did before.

The simple fact is that businesses all across the UK are carrying on. Directly-affected companies are being pragmatic and are preparing for a range of possible outcomes.

Away from Westminster, many businesses are ignoring the Brexit noise completely and say there needs to be a far bigger focus on getting the basics right here at home.

Their message is that Brexit must not become all-consuming and that having the right skills, infrastructure and business environment across the UK will play a far bigger part in our future success than any eventual Brexit deal.

The EU headquarters in Brussels
The EU headquarters in Brussels

Many businesses have been preparing for the eventuality that the UK would leave both the single market and the customs union, with some sort of free trade deal to follow.

The Prime Minister’s remarks largely confirm this, and will lead other firms to think about making similar plans.

Clarity on barrier-free arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic remain critical to business. Regarding a proposed transitional period after Brexit, this would be common sense. We need a reasonable transitional period that gives directly-affected businesses the breathing space they need to adapt to new realities.

If, as the Prime Minister suggested, citizens of the EU-27 are subject to future restrictions on immigration, a simple and light-touch system is required.

Bringing EU nationals into the costly and bureaucratic Home Office work permit process would be a huge regulatory burden for many businesses, especially when their immediate skills shortages at every level remain acute.

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