Small businesses welcome Brexit transition period – but call for more clarity from government
- Credit: Nick Butcher
The agreement of a near two-year transition period after Brexit has provided some relief for East Anglia's small businesses – but many feel more clarity is still needed on how leaving the European Union will impact them.
This week saw the government reach an agreement with the EU on a transition period, to last from Brexit day on March 29 2019 until December 31 2020.
But during a debate in Norwich organised by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), companies voiced their concern that the extra 21 months of preparation would mean little until the final deal – or at least the government's intentions – are made clear.
The panel at the debate in the Forum included FSB policy director Martin McTague, who said the negotiations so far had left some members 'disengaged and bored'.
'The hard truth is that a lot of people will not adjust to what is happening until it is too late. Making the reality of post-Brexit much clearer so they can plan for it is very important,' he said.
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Tony Bambridge, NFU Norfolk chairman, believed businesses could not effectively transition towards 'the unknown'.
'As a businessman I am going to focus on the known aspects of our business including knowing our customers and trying to drive efficiencies so whatever happens we are in a more competitive place. Our customers are quite nervous as well so there is a chance there to build strong relationships that will be robust whatever we come up with,' he said.
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MEP for the East of England Alex Mayer echoed Mr Bambridge. 'You cannot start transitioning or implementing unless you know what it is you are trying to transition to or to implement, and I don't think we are there yet,' she said.
Prof Hussein Kassim, of the University of East Anglia, said it was an 'achievement' to have agreed the transition period.
As a fellow of UK in a Changing Europe, Prof Kassim said the organisation 'regards uncertainty as a deep problem' for UK and EU businesses. 'Large companies have made their adjustments but small businesses are vulnerable so making information available for them is absolutely essential,' he added.
Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, said the transition period was an 'important piece of the jigsaw puzzle' in the UK's negotiations with Brussels.
She said the government was breaking the Brexit negotiation process into 'manageable chunks' – the next of which would be a trade deal with Europe, arguably the meatiest part of the process.
'It is good for businesses to have a date to work towards. Government set out to get the transition period so businesses only have to make changes once. It gives people time to plan as well,' she said.
But how much will it cost?
The issue of money – and how much more or less of it the UK could have at its disposal outside the EU – was also hotly debated.
Barry Simms, of Norwich-based Hort Consult, asked Chloe Smith if she could tell the assembled crowd exactly how much better off the UK would be after leaving the EU.
'As businesses we are financially driven, and really the government is financially driven. To not be able to give us a figure is a dereliction of duty – we have got to know the numbers,' he said.
Ms Smith said it was not possible to give an 'economically accurate' answer yet as the government did not know what the final Brexit deal would look like.
'Once we have got that we can give you a more accurate answer,' she added.
MEP Alex Mayer also made reference to the finances, in relation to leaked documents which she said showed every region of the UK could be poorer after Brexit – the East of England by as much as 8%.
In response Ms Smith said: 'That report was not yet able to conclude what they should be analysing, because we don't yet know what the final deal is. When we know that then we can run some proper models.'