Brussels is a bigger threat to an orderly Brexit than London

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, EU citizens would be right in asking why the EC did not show more willingness to reach an agreement, our CEO writes in this article for City AM

A “no-deal Brexit” is either unthinkable, possible, or likely – depending on who you talk to. But one common thread unites all the newspaper columns that discuss it: it would be a disaster.

As the former chief executive of the Port of Gibraltar, and the new head of the UK Chamber of Shipping, it’s a sentiment I largely share. But the recent coverage seems to focus on one battle: which side would win? 

This fundamentally misses the point. EU officials might shrug their shoulders and say “the UK would obviously come off worst”, but in public debate, such a view quickly becomes synonymous with “the EU would not suffer huge damage”.

And this just isn’t the case.

Aside from losing out on the exit fee of some £37bn, which the EU desperately needs, it is worth remembering that of the 27 other member states, 23 countries run a trade surplus with the UK – they sell more to us than they buy from us. 

We in the shipping industry see it at the gates of Dover, where 7,000 lorries a day roll on and off our ferries, bringing goods from every member state. 

Many EU citizens at the beginning of that supply chain – factory workers, farmers, food producers – would lose their livelihoods in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They are not going to go home to their families and say “sorry I lost my job, but at least the UK is suffering more”.

Esoteric concepts of political jargon and international comparison matter little to ordinary people. It is their lived experiences that matter, and if someone’s livelihood is stripped from them because politicians could not agree with one another, those politicians will never be forgiven. 

UK citizens will ask what went wrong and why. But make no mistake, EU citizens will justifiably also be asking why, when so much of the EU’s own PR is based on supporting its own people, the Commission did not show more willingness to reach an agreement.  

For the last two years, British industry’s focus has largely been on the UK government. The private sector, including the shipping industry, has taken to the airwaves to feed the media’s thirst for new Brexit opinion, and crammed into Whitehall meeting rooms to highlight threats – real or perceived – to their respective sectors. 

The Chequers deal is proof that the government has listened – it is as close to what we asked for as we were ever likely to get – and the Prime Minister has shown considerable fortitude in squaring the circles needed to deliver it. The rest of the government and all of Parliament now need to get behind it.

But so too must industry now respond to the Prime Minister’s efforts and begin to put the European Commission under as much scrutiny as it has Whitehall. We must recognise the reality that, increasingly, it is Brussels and not London that is the threat to an orderly Brexit.  

You don’t need to be an ardent Brexiteer to feel uncomfortable at how quickly the EU rejects UK proposals. It is clear that that the Prime Minister wants to find a fair and decent solution – it is not so clear that the EU feels the same way. 

Those of us representing British industry cannot simply return to Whitehall and demand further concessions when we know there is little more that government can do.

And it’s not just the UK that the Commission is ignoring. 

A Deloitte study recently found that German car manufacturing would lose €12.4bn in the event of no-deal. Manufacturers have demanded the EU does everything possible to maintain easy trade links. 

French farmers are increasingly concerned about the loss of their subsidies as the EU tightens its belts without British membership fees, and freight groups have warned of economically damaging delays at Calais and Zeebrugge. 

And the European Community Shipowners’ Association last year called for “an agreement that will ensure the continuation of trade volumes and unimpeded trade movements across our shared borders”.

The EU considers both the Chequers proposals and No Deal to be undesirable, but even the most humble student of European politics knows that in Brussels nobody gets what they want – they get what they can live with.  

I hope we do not get a No Deal scenario, it will be disastrous for shipping and the wider economy, but if we do, it will be because Brussels, not London, has chosen it.  

This article was originally published in the daily City AM newspaper on Thursday 16th August 2018.

For more information contact:

Bob Sanguinetti

Chief Executive

020 7417 2842