Businesses have been asking where Cumbria Chamber of Commerce stands on Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement.
While the likes of the CBI have endorsed it, Chambers have stayed neutral.
We know that Chamber members are divided and polling carried out by the British Chambers of Commerce reveals this is true across the country.
Where there is consensus is that few businesses want to see a no-deal Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms.
That would create extra costs and, in all likelihood, delays to imports and exports while goods undergo customs checks at ports.
It would also mean tariffs, which could hit Cumbria’s agriculture and food sector hard. Tariffs would be as high as 40% on meat and dairy products but much less on manufactured goods, typically around 2%.
That said, our conversations with businesses reveal serious misgivings about the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement.
Firstly, it doesn’t provide enough clarity about our future trading relationship with the EU. We would get a two-year transition period, where things stay pretty much as they are, but don’t know what would follow.
Another concern is that, even if new trading arrangements are negotiated during the transition period, would they ever be implemented?
While the withdrawal agreement required majority support among EU member states, the trading arrangements require unanimous support.
An individual EU member state could block a trade deal with the UK, perhaps to obtain leverage on an unrelated issue. This could drag on for years.
If we don’t get agreement on new trade arrangements by the end of the transition in 2020, the ‘backstop’ kicks in to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
That locks the UK into a customs union with the EU, which we can’t leave until the EU says we can. It would prevent us from striking trade deals with fast-growing emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China, as well as with established markets such as the US.
Where does this leave us?
We still don’t know what sort of Brexit we’ll get.
It could be Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a no-deal Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms or perhaps a Norway-plus arrangement that keeps us inside the single market and a customs union.
All are plausible outcomes with very different implications for businesses. It’s also possible that there’s a second referendum and Brexit is called off.
This makes it impossible to plan with certainty.
Nevertheless, it’s high time businesses started making contingency arrangements.
We have a wealth of material to help you.
Click here for the Brexit planning pages on our website, and here for the Government’s advice on no-deal planning.
Rest assured that, however Brexit pans out, the Chamber will be here to help businesses adapt, minimise the risks and seize opportunities.