As the dust begins to settle on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) following late June’s Referendum, Peter Webster reflects upon the events of the last month or so and explains why he firmly believes we now find ourselves at the beginning of a long and arduous journey.
Thursday 23 June 2016 will go down in history as the day when the UK, Europe and perhaps even the world changed forever. The UK public’s decision to leave the EU was a surprise to many, but for those like myself who remained transfixed to the TV screen as the results came in, the whole process clearly highlighted a nation divided about whether to stick with the status quo or boldly enter a ‘Brave New World’.
With the ‘Leave’ result now generally accepted and the statement from the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, that “Brexit means Brexit”, it’s time for all of us to strap ourselves in as it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about the lead up to the vote was the behaviour of those in both the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ camps. The whole process was riddled with conjecture, misinformation and delusion. All this served to do was leave the voting electorate confused about the true impact of Brexit.
Politicians and other commentators resorted to scare tactics, while Boris Johnson and David Cameron seemed to be embroiled in a personal battle that did little to truly inform the debate. In the end, people went with their gut instincts and focused on the issues most important to them. Concerns about national sovereignty and/or the power of Brussels outweighed the possible damage to trade relations, foreign policy and national security.
From a purely economic and business point of view, the UK is deeply connected by trade to the rest of the EU, with just over 44% of everything we sell to the rest of the world going to Europe. There’s no doubt that the decision to exit the Union will have significant consequences for businesses. It’s fair to state that the extent of any disruption will very much depend on the terms and timing of the new trade agreements eventually negotiated.
Topic of discussion
As it stands, we simply don’t know what the final outcome will be. The process of exiting the EU will take two years from the invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, with the intervening period creating uncertainty as we carefully navigate the waters of independence.
Pinning our hopes on carving out separate trade agreements with various countries sounds OK in principle, but how long will it take and what will happen in the meantime? During his last visit here, US President Barack Obama stated that it could take up to ten years to negotiate trade deals with the USA and that the UK would have “less influence in Europe and, as a consequence, less influence globally”.
We shall see about that in due course, but the UK Government is currently making all the right noises on maintaining close trading links with Europe, while the talk about emulating a Norwegian or Swiss model seems to have died down. The feeling is that the new Conservative Cabinet is trying to do something unique which will meet the UK’s needs. It was also encouraging to hear that Australia is already making positive comments about a trade deal and, hopefully, this will open the floodgates for other countries to follow suit.
For me, the biggest cause for concern about leaving the EU is the disruption it’s already causing. The negative impact on our economy, the rewriting of 40 years’ worth of rules and regulations and the potential threats posed to our national security are significant issues. The pound has weakened and, although the stock market is recovering, the situation in relation to global share prices is now precarious at best.
Safe and secure?
We also need to consider our role in preventing the rise of global terrorism and how we will work with other EU Member States to combat Islamic State. The recent horrific attacks in Nice and Brussels not only remind us of the lengths to which Islamic extremists are prepared to go, but also highlight how vulnerable we all are at any given moment.
Co-operation between the police and the Security Services across Europe is a major advantage in the fight against terrorism, and the UK has a considerable role to play here. Although some agree with former MI6 leader Sir Richard Dearlove that EU-based security bodies are of “little consequence”, changing the system could potentially leave gaps that might be easily exploited by those with malicious intent. Another former MI6 boss, this time Sir John Sawers, has also warned that an independent UK could be shut out of decisions on the issue of data sharing.
Furthermore, as part of the EU, we’re currently able to gain access to a network containing details of 300,000 wanted criminals and missing individuals, in addition to benefiting from the European Arrest Warrant process. Whatever deal is struck, we need to make sure that this level of co-operation isn’t just maintained, but also built upon.
There’s a mass of legislation in place that will need to be repealed and replaced. These rules cover important regulations that govern the security business sector, and others, and to which all organisations currently work. As David Allen Green wrote in The Financial Times shortly before the EU Referendum: “The task of repeal and replacement will take years to complete, if indeed it’s ever completed. Even if the key legislation – particularly the European Communities Act 1972 – is repealed, there will have to be holding and saving legislation for at least a political generation.”
There are few people that like bureaucracy and excessive red tape, and the scale and complexity of what we’re now embarking upon could lead us to think that, in this respect, the EU wasn’t so bad after all.
Repercussions for security
There are going to be repercussions for those operating in the UK’s security sector. How extensive these changes will be depends upon the type of business concerned. For instance, for those operating in the UK only, border controls and duty will obviously be less of an issue than for those providing products and services further afield.
This is all before we begin to look at legislation such as the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), which is our implementation of the European Union’s Business Transfers Directive. Will it be ripped up and renegotiated, causing uncertainty and confusion in the marketplace? Those in power will have the ability to amend the entire system. It’s one that, on the whole, works well for the industry.
Rather than making life easier, any changes to TUPE could actually introduce significant complications and put us out of sync with our biggest trading partner.
David Davis, the newly-appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, has given a strong indication that existing employment law would not be radically altered once the UK leaves the UK. In a recent article, Davis was quoted as saying: “Britain has a relatively flexible workforce and, so long as the employment law environment remains reasonably stable, exiting the EU shouldn’t be a problem for business.”
Immediately post-Referendum there was much conjecture about the possibility of a second vote (and even the potential for the Scottish Government to derail the process). However, there seems an increasing acceptance of the decision and a sense that we all have to take some degree of responsibility for making our new situation work.
There are signs for optimism. Not only is Theresa May my local member of Parliament, but she’s also a fine politician who, as Prime Minister, is the best possible person to take the country forward. Representing a refreshing departure from the personality politics of recent years, May has assembled a Cabinet that has the cream of both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps within it. This includes Boris Johnson, who’s much more astute, savvy and smart than his public persona might at times have some believe. Not only that, Johnson has the added impetus of proving Michael Gove wrong about his suitability for high office.
Period of calm and stability
For the security business sector, new Home Secretary Amber Rudd will have her work cut out following Theresa May’s long and highly successful tenure in the role. As Rudd comes to terms with the task before her, she will no doubt have more important things to do than meddle with the Security Industry Authority. This could, in fact, lead to a welcome period of calm and stability for this part of the industry, which would be no bad thing at all.
The EU has changed dramatically from the one that originally comprised six founding states – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. As the Union now stands to lose one of the highest profile and most important members of its present 28-strong contingent, what the forthcoming years hold for the EU is as open to debate as what the UK has in store.
One thing’s for sure – the future is uncertain.
Peter Webster is CEO of Corps Security