I’ve lost track of all of the group meetings, political rallies, panel discussions and public talks I’ve attended on the subject of Brexit since the referendum. Inevitably, the names Johnson, May, Davis, Farage, Corbyn and Cable come up, as do the words soft and hard Brexit. Then, a few weeks ago, I went to a panel discussion about business in the East Anglia region after the referendum. With this panel, most of these names of politicos didn’t come up at all. Nor were the ideas of a soft or hard Brexit bandied about. Why not? Because there were no politicians, political activists or journalists on the panel.
Without the politics, the business leaders in the region talked about what they were doing to deal with the problems they currently face as a result of the referendum. One businessman, who owns some fifty farms and food production facilities in Europe, including East Anglia, described how his local business has suffered. Fifty percent of his workforce is seasonal and most of them are from Eastern Europe. Thanks to the post-referendum spike in hate crimes, especially those targeting Eastern Europeans, this farm owner is having serious difficulties hiring seasonal workers. His solution has been to move part of his operation to Poland and Senegal.
Another speaker was there to give advice about how to go global and reach outside of the EU. He wasn’t talking about expansion, but survival. In this, he was positive about the prospects, saying that businesses could go global ‘without difficulty.’
A couple of other panellists came to the discussion as legal experts, one in dealing with the EU and the other in international trade. They both agreed on two things. One was that the current uncertainty about how we are leaving the EU was damaging business. The other was that the government – any government in this situation – would struggle to cope with the actual matter of leaving the EU. It’s been decades since the UK was involved in trade and legal negotiations like this – we simply don’t have the appropriate staff or experience.
In recent months the occasional story has surfaced in the news about finance companies and banks in London moving part or all of their offices to Paris and Frankfurt. So too have articles appeared in the national press about UK high-tech firms relocating to Romania. Of course, such solutions are taking jobs and business revenues out of the UK. We don’t know if this is part of a transition phase before we become a different kind of country – a smaller, more marginal country. Or if this is the catalyst to reverse Brexit altogether. Either way, it’s dealing with the present and helping businesses and those who run and work for them to stay alive.
It’s taken me three weeks to get around to writing this blog. Three weeks with these ideas hovering in the back of my mind. Clearly, my thinking has been challenged. It’s like looking at a building when it’s up close or seeing it from an aeroplane. The same building can look vastly different. Since June 2016, I’ve been approaching the Brexit problem as a political activist, with all the meetings, rallies and talks. Now I’m starting to wonder – even though politics got us into this mess, it might not be the way out. I’m not saying that we give up on our politicians altogether – they’re a necessary evil and they do hold power. But when it comes to some of the problems that Brexit is causing, it’s worth considering solutions and non-political approaches offered by businesses and other organisations.