Sue Arundale / Mar 2022
Whether the business community was sufficiently clear in making its case for a truly pro-business agreement between the UK and EU has been the subject of considerable debate. With the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) coming into full force on the 1 May 2021, some would argue that while the context is different the question still remains, whether the business voice is strong enough. So now we have the TCA is that it? No more problems to solve? No need for business to speak up beyond the technical margins of the TCA? Or should business be more vocal in making its case not only for a workable deal but a stronger one that better serves the needs of business - and by extension the consumers it serves - on both sides of the channel?
Businesses hit already and must speak out
In the long term, as the TCA will be reviewed every 5 years, business will need to stay engaged with the process and its voice will continue to be of critical importance. Firstly, any challenges, including barriers to trade, must be acknowledged and understood and business, being at the sharp end, can provide evidence in this regard, as well as propose potential solutions. More immediately, there are clear issues and these are being discussed in the EU-UK Parliamentary Assembly, which started work early this year. Businesses are already reporting problems, so what can they expect in terms of being heard?
Recently, the British Chamber of Commerce׀ EU & Belgium and other key stakeholders in Brussels and the UK have been providing feedback on the implementation of the TCA and policy makers on both sides of the Channel appear to be open to the messages being delivered. Regular dialogue between business representatives and between this group and those responsible for the success of the trade agreement takes place. Although there are no miracles, particularly for the most difficult sticking points, talks are constructive and give business representatives the opportunity to demonstrate the impacts of the new trading relationship on industry.
BritCham recently carried out its own survey. There is evidence that costs and the administrative burden are starting to bite. It seems that businesses are simply finding their own solutions, such as either giving up because it is “too much hassle at the moment” or setting up operations either in the UK (for Belgium and EU-based companies) or Belgium or somewhere else in the EU (for UK companies). For practical help to solve day to day problems, they are contacting BritCham or other Chambers/business support organisations. Enquiries are coming every week, from members in both the UK and Belgium. These are mainly about additional documentation required since January. One common challenge for UK companies is the language barrier, which is now more obvious, given that the documents required in Belgium must be completed in an official language.
What can business do?
The reality of the UK as a Third Country is that for those UK businesses that want to trade with, or operate in the EU, the rules of the TCA or the single market will need to be followed. Moreover, UK companies cannot, for example, expect to operate uniquely in English. More generally, the TCA gives the basis for a new trading relationship between the UK and EU and whilst it can and perhaps should be built on in time, this is unlikely to happen in the short-term. Business needs to focus on finding the solutions that are possible, to be able to continue trading within the EU. On the other hand, we all need to also focus on the big picture and the long term. Future revisions of the TCA will be preceded by the usual impact assessments, consultations and here, business representatives are well placed to influence change. What BritCham and other business representatives need, is hard evidence: impact on the bottom line and specific difficulties being encountered, as well as solutions found. Engagement and dialogue with members are critical for this purpose.
Is the voice of business being heard?
Yes and no. On the EU side, an MEP involved in the EU-UK Parliamentary Assembly recently told BritCham leaders “if it (the TCA) doesn’t work for business, it doesn’t work.” On the UK side, BritCham notes a willingness on the part of relevant policy makers to hear about the impact of the TCA since its full implementation and especially since all customs rules came into force at the beginning of this year.
On the other hand, political priorities do not always dovetail with the needs of business on the ground. This has been seen all too clearly with the Northern Ireland protocol, which could still unravel the TCA. BritCham understands the political complexity, but stays out of the arguments. Its job is to support its members, gather evidence, seek solutions and use its channels and strong relationships in the stakeholder community and with policy makers on both sides, to mitigate the business – and economic and social - impact of the UK’s departure from the EU.