Analyses & Studies

Brexit Forum welcomes French Ambassador

A recent meeting of the Brexit Forum welcomed HE Ms Catherine Colonna, French Ambassador to the UK, alongside business leaders Fabienne Viala, Chairman of Bouygues UK, and Geoff Skingsley, Chairman of L'Oréal UK & Ireland.

In a session moderated by Neil Sherlock CBE, a wide-ranging conversation explored current views of the negotiations, both in Britain and France, as well as providing clear business insight, in terms of the priorities of some of the country’s largest companies and the effects on their workforce and operations.

There was broad acknowledgement that Brexit has rightfully paled in the agenda in Britain and France since the outbreak of coronavirus, as European nations fight the pandemic. However, the recent reignition of talks between the EU’s Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost is a strong reminder that the December deadline is on the immediate horizon.

It was noted that recent talks have not yet achieved a resolution to core issues for the future of the UK-EU relationship, such as the alignment of their respective markets and the free movement of people. Many technicalities also need to be worked out on key issues, with Michel Barnier recently outlining four important areas, including a ‘level playing field’ for free trade; fisheries; global governance; and security, including data and human rights.

With two more sessions over several days before the end of June, both sides will need to use this time to assess if the deadline of the end of the year is reachable. They must also ensure that what was already decided in the Withdrawal Agreement will be in place for 2021, such as customs and borders checks. It has been a consistent position of both the EU27 and the UK that there will be no extension past the end of the year.

It is in the interest of many businesses on both sides of the channel, that the future trade agreement is as close to the current alignment as possible to minimise disruption. There is concern that the UK government appears to hold the view that the agreement will need to be radically different than what currently exists in order to meet the expectations of their electorate. 

While it has been difficult for companies to lobby government for equivalence – it was noted that they are more moved by arguments related to productivity – lines of communication between government and business seem to be more open, with greater roles for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and other industry bodies.

Access to people from Europe is a top priority for many businesses, who were already understaffed prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, as training regimes of UK nationals will take time to produce the required numbers of workers. The terms of the immigration system could have its greatest impact on smaller companies within the supply chains of larger firms.

While neither the UK or the EU has said that it would seek an extension to talks, the outbreak of coronavirus may legitimise the delay of Brexit, especially if the economic impact of coronavirus continues to escalate and it is no longer in the interest of the Prime Minister to introduce fresh shocks to the economy.

 

The French Chamber’s Brexit Forum is sponsored by ESCP Business School. For information on past and future meetings please see here.

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