As the UK begins its official departure from the European Union, and the 11-month transition period is triggered, business sentiment ranges from relief to trepidation.
Like much of the public, the business community wants to move on from Westminster’s exhausting, political debates that have dominated the past three years, in turn damaging business confidence and investment.
Yet moving on will be difficult for a lot of firms in Northern Ireland, because the certainty required, especially in terms of NI/GB trade and vice-versa, has still not been delivered. Northern Ireland enjoys the same access to the internal UK market as the other regions and it is vital that this remains. Recently, 36% of our members told us that they view ‘the Boris deal’ as detrimental to business prospects in light of this.
As it stands, during the transition period beginning 1 February, businesses in Northern Ireland can continue to operate as usual when it comes to trade with the EU and the rest of the UK. In the meantime, the UK Government and EU 27 have less than 12 months to agree a free-trade agreement that clarifies the breadth and depth of the UK’s future relationship with the EU and delivers on the guarantee of our ‘unfettered’ access to the internal market.
Considering that the most recent EU agreements have taken, on average, over five years to negotiate, there is a small window for securing a good trade deal between the EU and the UK, which will be vital to protect our jobs and economy.
Decisions made during the next phase of negotiations will therefore influence the business environment for decades to come. That is why the NI Executive must be congratulated on forming an all-party sub-committee on Brexit which must start to tackle the key challenges facing business as a matter of urgency, especially in terms of the NI/GB market.
The business community is pragmatic and wants to move on from the emotional arguments around Brexit that have stymied confidence and investment for so long. They want to work with ministers to get the details right on issues like customs, regulation and immigration – and they are desperate to avoid more of the cliff-edges that have affected their operations in recent years.
On the domestic front, NI Chamber was encouraged by the references to trade and export in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal. With renewed focus, the Executive must move fast to start reversing the damage three years of paralysis has caused and restore the confidence of businesses, consumers and investors – and make sure NI does not get left further behind. As an export focused organisation, we welcome our local Minister’s focus on investing in business growth for the future.
In all scenarios, a smooth transition to our future relationship with the EU is essential. After years of relentless uncertainty and plummeting investment, it would be intolerable for businesses to face multiple and sudden changes to their trading conditions over the months and years ahead. We cannot face another situation where politics gets in the way of progress.