Planning for Brexit? There’s more help in Dublin than London

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Updated: Nov 03, 2018 1:09 PM

With Britain’s departure from the European Union looming, ministers are urging businesses to prepare. Leaflets, a website and a Twitter account set out what they should do, and loans are available to help.

Representative Image: Reuters

With Britain’s departure from the European Union looming, ministers are urging businesses to prepare. Leaflets, a website and a Twitter account set out what they should do, and loans are available to help. There are even tote bags bearing the government’s slogan: “Getting Brexit Ready.’’ Unfortunately for U.K. companies, it’s the Irish government doing all this.

The British one is doing rather less. There are no tote bags, leaflets or even a designated website. On the government’s homepage, there’s a link to a page of guidance for EU citizens in the U.K., which includes general announcements — many without an obvious connection to Brexit.

To be fair, Ireland has been preparing for longer; its first analysis at the end of 2014 concluded that Britain leaving the EU would pose a serious threat to the Irish economy. The U.K. government didn’t start until after Britons voted for Brexit in June 2016.

It’s also more difficult for Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to give advice on how to prepare, given it’s still locked in talks with the EU on the terms of divorce. If ministers induce panic over the perils of a no-deal or just a bad Brexit, they risk weakening the government’s hand in the negotiations.

But the big advantage Ireland has over Britain is that it knows what it thinks about Brexit. Having decided it’s a potential disaster, it’s been preparing accordingly. In the U.K., May’s own lawmakers are divided, with a vocal faction even calling for Britain to crash out of the bloc without an agreement.

What ‘No-Deal Brexit’ Means and How It May Be Averted: QuickTake

“There’s clearly not a united position in the Conservative Party about what no deal actually means and what it would look like in practice,’’ said Joe Owen, an associate director at the Institute for Government think tank. “That makes putting out advice to business a political challenge — as a result, there’s a limit to how helpful they can be.”

The government argues it has engaged with business, pointing to events like the meeting between May, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and 130 business leaders on Wednesday. It also published more than 100 so-called technical notices on the implications of a no-deal Brexit “so that businesses and citizens have time to prepare,” it said in a statement.

Owen said this barely scratches the surface.

“There’s extensive engagement with bigger players, but they’ve done very, very little in terms of engagement with smaller businesses,’’ he said. “If you’re not like Nissan, or the Port of Dover, there isn’t much engagement.”

It’s the smaller companies that need the most help. According to the CBI, the U.K.’s largest business lobby, there are about 180,000 trading firms in Britain with no experience of importing or exporting outside the EU.

“Simple, clear and widely accessible information is crucial,’’ the group told the government in September. It asked for a website and a hotline that companies could go to with questions.

‘Partnership Pack’
The government responded at the end of October with a “Partnership Pack” from the tax office, offering step-by-step guidance on how trading companies should prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

But leaving the EU will affect businesses in fundamental ways.

Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes illustrated that on Tuesday, telling a parliamentary committee companies will be expected to check whether their employees from the EU have the right to work in the U.K. after it leaves the bloc. Such is the level of confusion over Brexit, Nokes’s boss, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, corrected her statement the following day.

Owen compared the situation to the government’s roll-out of new rules that required employers to enroll their staff in pensions. “There were regular letters with really easy information, telling employers the practical things they needed to do,’’ he said. “It was a really easy guided process, rather than a bunch of legalese chucked on a website.’’

One area where the government does seem to have Brexit guidance ready is Northern Ireland. A businessman there said he was told by British officials he should check the Irish government’s website.

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