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LONDON â€” Britainâ€™s business groups have yet to lose the Brexit debate and can build on an EU-U.K. trade agreement, according to one of the countryâ€™s top lobbyists.
Adam Marshall, who is stepping down later this month as director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses have so far struggled to get ministers â€œto focus on the practicalities of Brexit rather than the politicsâ€ in the years since Britainâ€™s referendum. The U.K.â€™s trade bodies had mounted a concerted push for a close relationship with the EU in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum. But Downing Street prioritized sovereignty over industry calls for seamless trade flows and chose a more distant relationship with Brussels than many British firms had hoped for.
There’s still time, though, Marshall argued in an interview with POLITICO. He said firms will continue to make the case for cooperation now that Britain has signed its Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU.
â€œI donâ€™t feel weâ€™ve lost the argument,â€ he said. â€œI feel like this is a process that itâ€™s still ongoing. For all of us whoâ€™ve got kids, the TCA is like the green base for the LEGO set. It is the foundation, the piece you put brick after brick on. The beauty of LEGO is that you can find many different ways to build the building.â€
However, Marshall worries that the confrontational tone in EU-U.K. interactions over the last three months will delay the settling of their trade relationship.
For businesses with more integrated supply chains with Europe, Brexit poses structural problems, meaning â€œthey may be giving some very deep thoughtâ€ to relocating to the Continent. Marshall predicts further friction when new U.K. import controls, postponed for an extra six months, come into place.
â€œOne industrialist that I know well described this as a slow puncture â€” it is not something that it fades out right away, it takes time,â€ he said. â€œWhat bothers me is that it canâ€™t be right that suddenly it is more difficult for firms to trade in goods with countries in the EU27 than it is for them to trade in goods with Japan, the U.S. or any other global market. In theory that shouldnâ€™t be the case.â€
During his 12 years at the BCC, Marshall has lobbied Labourâ€™s Gordon Brown, the two Conservative governments led by David Cameron and the Brexit-focused Conservative administrations of Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
His promotion to helm the BCC came as a shock in March 2016, when the organizationâ€™s former Director-General John Longworth quickly resigned after declaring his support for the pro-Brexit Leave campaign.
Longworth went on to run the pro-Brexit think tank Centre for Brexit Policy and argued that the Withdrawal Agreement is so toxic it would be â€œquite legitimateâ€ in international law to reject it.
Did Longworth damage the BCC’s reputation with his decision to pick a side in Britain’s most divisive public debate of the last generation?
â€œWe are a pragmatic, practical, can-do business organization, not a heavily politicized or ideological one,â€ Marshall said.
But he admitted following Longworth took some work.
â€œMy predecessorâ€™s choices were his and his alone,â€ Marshall said. â€œFor me, the priority was always: re-establish calm and the reputation of our organization as politically impartial and deeply engaged in the issues.â€
After the referendum, some lobby groups complained that they lost the ear of British ministers if they voiced concerns about the impact of Brexit on the economy. Marshall insists this was not the case for the BCC.
â€œI really never cared about being inside the tent or outside the tent,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve never felt shut out, although over all of my 12 years there have been times where governments have listened but not heard. There have been rather deaf ears in every administration Iâ€™ve engaged with.â€
Ministers have come to appreciate more the contributions of trade associations as a result of the pandemic, he argued: â€œWhat this demonstrates is that in a lot of cases we need to work together successfully if the U.K. is to succeed.â€
The future of the union
Marshall said political leaders must be â€œaware and wary ofâ€ economic damage that furthers political instability, whether it’s brought about by a second Scottish independence referendum or the break-up of the union.
â€œBusinesses very strongly want to see the market between the four nations of this island work smoothly,â€ he said. â€œThere is real concern that after having gone through a very long period of political instability, there might be more to come.â€
But the BCC does not appear yet to have a counterargument for those Scottish business leaders who believe it would be more beneficial for the nationâ€™s economy to re-join the EU as an independent state and enter a trade deal with Britain to keep links with the rest of its island.
Because a second Scottish referendum is still â€œhypothetical,â€ Marshall said, the BCC is not engaged in such discussions yet, even though there is a diversity of views within the organization. He said people â€œshould look carefully at the depth of trade links and economic integration between the nations of the United Kingdom.”
The BCC’s outgoing director-general will be replaced by Shevaun Haviland, a former civil servant at the U.K.â€™s Cabinet Office. Her CV includes consultancy positions in London and New York, and a spell in strategic planning at the Walt Disney Company.
Haviland will have to navigate a British political landscape increasingly focused on big headlines and less interested in implementation, Marshall said.
â€œSometimes the details arenâ€™t convenient. Our political culture has also, over the years, created this machine geared towards announcements and media cycles, where saying something with 24-hours impact is prioritized over doing something with 24-year impact,â€ he said. â€œAs a country, we need to think very long and hard about that.â€
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