Blog: We all know Britain must be ‘open for business’ when we leave the EU – but how?

David Dingle, Chairman of Maritime UK

As Brexit continues to dominate the headlines there is, understandably, a great deal of anxiety surrounding the UK’s future prosperity, and our ability to protect and grow Britain’s reputation as a major business centre. What is agreed almost across the board is that we must ensure we make post-Brexit Britain an attractive business environment.

The referendum was a largely political event, but its economic consequences are enormous and will be felt for years to come. If we want a positive economic outcome from the vote, then UK business needs to flourish. But what’s talked about far less is how to create the conditions that will allow that to happen, which makes Number 10’s release of important Brexit policy papers on Tuesday a welcome, and possibly overdue, announcement.

The maritime sector is well placed to discuss how Britain can make itself attractive to business and investment post-Brexit. Nearly 1 million jobs are supported by the sector, which contributes tens of billions of pounds to the economy. The maritime sector and its international counterparts are the ones who move goods around the world, and ensure that the wider public have access to the things they want and need. So while the government is front and centre throughout the EU ‘divorce’ process, it is the private sector which needs the right mechanisms and conditions in place to be able to go about its business post-Brexit.

The maritime sector, founded on the shipping industry, is by its very nature the most international of all businesses. Clearly it’s vital that the UK is seen as being ‘open for business’, and it’s encouraging to see that figures in Government are committed to this. Business Secretary Greg Clark, for instance, has said that nobody voted for Brexit ‘to trade less’ and that Brexiters were generally in favour of a ‘global Britain’. Theresa May, meanwhile, told business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum that Britain is and will continue to be pro-enterprise.

Being seen as ‘open for business’ is, of course, only one side of the coin. We must be attractive to investors and businesspeople, too. This means that during the Brexit negotiations, British representatives must ensure that any concessions made aren’t to the detriment of commercial life, while at the same time pushing for the introduction of new rules that support it.

The government must also be careful not to give away regulatory benefits inadvertently. The EU’s Parent-Subsidiary Directive, for instance, prevents group companies from being taxed twice on the same income, and is particularly relevant to global maritime businesses with operations in the UK. Losing this benefit – or failing to replace it with an equivalent measure – would make the UK a far less attractive place to be based.

One of the main risks of leaving the EU is that there will be new and unnecessary protocols put in place at our borders that will delay the transit of goods and passengers, or create obstacles to the selling of British services. If we are to leave the single market, then the deal we secure we must be equally favourable to the United Kingdom.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had said that rather than press the EU for a special arrangement for Northern Ireland post-Brexit, it would be preferable for the UK to remain inside the customs union – an idea that was echoed this week by the British government. It’s a welcome suggestion, and indicative of the fact that it will beneficial for both the UK and the EU if a frictionless trade arrangement could be reached.

There’s no doubt that to some, the Brexit vote represented the restoration of a belief in home-grown talent. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that the deal we eventually agree with Brussels makes sure that industry guarantees the availability of both the people and the skills for the jobs that need to be filled – something which need not conflict with putting faith in domestic workers and encouraging them to learn new skills. In order for the maritime sector – and others – to thrive, foreign business must be able to bring their personnel to Britain when they establish new offices, and that arrangement must be reciprocal.

In general terms, what’s most important not only for the maritime sector but for the British economy at large is that the UK offers stability so that we can focus on growth, innovation and international trade. Whichever way you voted last June, the wheels are now in motion and the UK will leave the EU in April 2019. It is the hand that we have been dealt, and now is the time to put bluster and conjecture aside, to start deciding what life outside of the EU will look like for British business, and to make a success of it.

Article originally published in The Spectator