As chief executive of Mersey Maritime, Chris Shirling-Rooke is in constant contact with firms in Liverpool city region’s £4bn maritime sector – and he says they need certainty on Brexit from the Government
In many respects the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the attention of the country away from the other major event that has been the dominant feature of the last few years: Brexit.
But the subject is now firmly on the agenda once again, not least as it came front and centre of the national consciousness with the announcement that the government would introduce a UK Internal Market Bill.
This has cast a searchlight on the state of the negotiations around a comprehensive free trade deal between the UK and the European Union which are now in their most critical phase. The Prime Minister has said that a deal must be reached by the middle of next month which means the stakes are very high indeed.
He has also indicated that if no deal is possible, the UK is relatively relaxed about that scenario and is prepared to operate its trade policy with our European neighbours on the basis of World Trade Organisation terms. It looks like the negotiating lines are clear for all to see, even if there is a lot of politics and rhetoric also going on.
One of Mersey Maritime’s primary roles is to act as a collective voice for our members both regionally and on the national stage and to ensure what they tell us is reflected in the case we make to key stakeholders on their behalf, including Government.
Businesses are telling us they need certainty now and in the crucial next few weeks, one way or another on these issues. Just like they did around the debate last autumn on the Withdrawal Agreement, the people who ensure the jobs and economic activity which is vital for the economy to prosper, now require the same degree of certainty on this next phase.
They can plan for every scenario that comes about but only with proper and accurate knowledge of what that actually means in reality.
It is inevitable that negotiations around the post Brexit trade deal would enter a phase of ‘hard ball’ as both sides hone in on the key points of dispute and challenge. But it is unrealistic to expect just one side to relent on its key points of principle.
One of the primary drivers of the case to leave the European Union focused around the ability of the UK to once again act as a sovereign country in relation to its borders, its laws and its money. The red lines on this are clear for the Government but they also need to be balanced with the not unreasonable desire of the EU to protect the integrity of the single market.
The maritime industry, known to be responsible for facilitation of 95% of all international trade in the UK, has played a crucial part in ensuring our country has been fed, fuelled and supplied during the COVID-19 crisis.
We know our ports have risen to the challenge of making sure this has been possible and will continue to deliver in this way. We are rightly proud of how all our key partners in the supply chain, and in whatever capacity, have delivered all that we’ve needed during the crisis and demonstrated the resilience of the industry.
But being an island nation, we also know that there are opportunities way beyond our immediate geographical neighbours, important though they will continue to be. Liverpool knows this only too well.
We are the natural gateway across the Atlantic and have the potential to facilitate an enhanced trade relationship between the UK and US in a significant way. But we also have strong links with other parts of the world, particularly our Commonwealth allies, many of whom are already seriously engaged in work to deliver new trade deals.
The prospect of rekindling these old alliances, with Australia, Canada and New Zealand in particular, is both exciting and represents significant opportunities for business. But they are medium term in aspirations and require the Government to get right the immediate challenges it faces and deliver a positive and clear outcome in our negotiations with our European partners, one way or another.
What can’t be allowed to happen is for the Government to simply say they expect something to happen and have confidence that it will, without being totally assured about the practical reality on the ground.
Take the issue of customs clearance after the transition period has come to an end on December 31, 2020.
We know from our close dealings with the Road Haulage Association – experts on this subject – that there is a real possibility of disruption to supply chains as a result of what appears to be inadequate border preparations for this key moment in the process of extracting ourselves from the EU.
Are the IT systems needed in place? Is the training underway for new customs agents? Is the physical infrastructure being built and at pace? These complicated and challenging issues need to be addressed with urgency and clarity so businesses can respond accordingly and plan properly for the future.
It cannot be left to chance that when our businesses are exporting, for example, that the key systems to manage the flow of lorries at the UK border and to make sure consignments are cleared properly in order to enter the EU are not in place.
While we know the Government recognises this, the assurances and practical implementation need to be seen on the ground. Without them would be unacceptable to business and damaging to our reputation around the world.
Brexit presents us with challenges, yes, but also considerable opportunity. British technology and manufacturing has always been at the forefront of the entrepreneurial spirit that powered the industrial revolution and has the potential to turbo charge the next existential challenge, that of decarbonisation and a transition to a clean economy.
That’s a massive opportunity for us. We have the ingenuity and ability here in Merseyside, and across the country, to rise to the most significant post war priority that we face and we can’t miss the boat (so to speak).
Responding to this, from a position of certainty and clarity, could unleash the creation of many thousands of skilled and quality jobs, with ‘levelling up’ and sharing prosperity a driving ambition.
Our region must be at the heart of this and is ready to be so, but let’s deal properly with the problems at hand first as robustly and actively as we can.
Herculean efforts have been made by Government, businesses and individuals to get us on the path to emerge from the crisis of COVID-19. We cannot and must not plunge ourselves into a Brexit-related crisis at this crucial time.
Mersey Maritime will continue in its role by raising these important issues at the highest level it possibly can, to ensure the voice of our members – vital for the economic recovery we need to see – is heard and acted upon wherever possible.