Updated: 13 December, 2019
The last three and a half years have been filled with Brexit uncertainty. On December 12th, the dense, confusing fog that has been sitting over the UK cleared up ever so slightly. There are so many questions still left unanswered. Let’s have a look at what we do know so far.
As this blog is quite long, here is a short table of contents of what to expect in this blog:Latest updates
With parliamentary elections being held once again, the Conservative Party pulled out a major victory on Thursday. Lead behind Boris Johnson, the Tories tallied up 43.6% of the popular vote and will have a large parliamentary majority, thus paving the way to finally “get Brexit done”.
The election was indeed historic for the country, but it will also be remembered by party leaders for generations to come. For the Conservatives, who won 365 seats, it was their biggest victory in over 30 years, dating back to Margaret Thatcher’s third term victory in 1987.
Unfortunately for the Labour Party, the historic results were not very positive. They had their worst showing in nearly a century! This clearly signals that a change is needed in order for the Labour Party to win back some of their traditional strongholds.
It would be difficult to argue that this isn’t the end of the line for Jeremy Corbyn, who failed to galvanise voters behind his seemingly Brexit-neutral stance.
With all the talk of Tories vs. Labour, another interesting element was seeing how Scotland voted. With the 2014 Scottish independence referendum still fresh in people’s minds, Scottish voters made it clear where they stand on Brexit when they voted for the Scottish National Party (SNP), giving them 80% of Scotland’s seats.
Talks of another independence referendum will surely heat up in the coming weeks and months. What will this mean for the future of the United Kingdom?
Either way, It seems that the UK will meet the latest Brexit deadline at the end of January 2020. And whether they are for it or against it, people are probably happy to be moving forward and re-shifting their focus to other topics.
What has been the impact of Brexit so far?
Has the damage been done?
Pressure is mounting as more businesses are losing patience and fears of a no-deal Brexit have caused companies like Airbus to consider moving their UK operations to the mainland, putting thousands of jobs at risk. Sony has already announced the transfer of its European HQ to the Netherlands to avoid Brexit disruptions.
As the deadline gets closer and closer, is it too late to stop the migration of big brands away from the UK? Not necessarily. Some companies like Fujitsu have reaffirmed their intentions of staying in the UK.
NHS and auto-industry expected to suffer from a no-deal
There are so many issues left unresolved and so many industries that want answers. Whether it’s the haulage sector’s need for driving permits if a no-deal situation happens, auto-parts manufacturers closing factories, or the ever-challenging Irish border issue, it seems that a smooth Brexit is the farthest thing from people’s minds.
Recently, famed Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced that Brexit uncertainty played a role in the company's decision to build a new factory in Germany rather than in the UK.
Experts are warning that the NHS should expect over 50,000 nursing vacancies by the end of the transition period in 2021. That number is expected to grow to 70,000 workers by 2025. At least the NHS is working on recruiting as they are even advertising on the news sites that are reporting these alarming statistics.
The video at the top of this article is a nurse recruitment ad
EU has wanted to keep the door open
The EU negotiators have always been in a tough spot throughout the negotiations. On the one hand, they needed to make negotiations difficult because letting a country leave the union should have demonstrable negative side effects for any other countries thinking of leaving.
At the same time, EU negotiators have known that the UK is an important economy and a healthy post-Brexit trade relationship would be beneficial as well.
Because of this, the EU made multiple attempts at letting the UK know that it still had time to change it's mind. However, with the latest election results, it's clear that cancelling Brexit is now off the table.
While SMEs may feel some of the positive (and immediate) impacts of the Brexit vote, some of the industry titans have been making (or not making) moves based on the vote.
As the sterling kept fluctuating, some retailers such as John Lewis warned that prices may increase. Supermarket giant, Sainsbury’s, is trying very hard not to pass the increased import prices over to their customers, but some items will inevitably cost more. With a no-deal Brexit seemingly on the horizon, supermarkets will be one of the first and obvious places where the effects of the vote will be felt.
After all, 79% of imported food in UK supermarkets comes from the EU.
Companies like Vodafone and Visa have strongly considered relocating offices (and jobs) to mainland Europe. Other companies have delayed big projects as a direct result of the vote, including Nissan, who planned on investing in their Sunderland plant, or Siemens, who have delayed their investments in wind turbines and want to rethink their strategies.
On the other hand, HSBC has ruled out moving out of their London offices even though it was under consideration initially following the vote.
So, what about the people selling British products and what impact will this new economy have on their jobs?
Urban centres across the UK have been focused on selling to the EU for years. According to the think-tank Centre for Cities, about 46% of exports from British urban centres go to the EU, while 15% go to the US and only 4% go to China.
These numbers are sure to change once the UK officially leaves the EU and Britain is free to make entirely new trade agreements with countries around the world. Since the UK will be free to make their own trade agreements, arranging them as quickly as possible is imperative to the British economy.
EU workers in the UK
Theresa May stated that high-skilled workers would be prioritised with no preferential treatment for people from the EU compared with workers from the rest of the world many months ago. Many saw this move as a response to the (lack of) feedback that she was getting from her EU counterparts.
The British Retail Consortium has stated that these policies should be based on the economy's needs rather than skill-levels and salaries. This mirrors the concerns that swirled around the Wimbledon strawberries controversy this past summer as it was revealed the fruit was being subsidised in order to keep prices affordable. Brexit critics were quick to point out that strawberries (and other soft fruits) will become more expensive and will need to be imported if no deal is reached in time.
As far as workers staying in the EU, Mrs. May nixed her original plan to charge EU workers that wanted to stay in the UK the £65 fee. Was this a sign of good faith, hoping to get the EU to budge on the Irish backstop issue?
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Although initial polls following the first Brexit referendum didn't strongly point to renewed feelings for independence, the last election definitely shows a clear indication of how Scotland feels about Brexit (and the EU).
Will Scotland leave the UK? The answer might not be so obvious.
Firstly, even though Scots were clearly in favour of staying in the EU in the first Brexit referendum, leaving the UK is another story. Leaving the UK is a much bigger question of national identity.
Secondly, the EU hasn’t exactly sent the strongest signals that it wants Scotland in the EU, so joining (or remaining in) the EU is not even a sure bet.
Thirdly, Brexit has become normalised. In the months following the vote, things have remained relatively calm and it seems that every day life hasn’t been disrupted very much, so many people may be unwilling to shake things up with another dramatic vote too quickly.
Despite these being valid arguments for why Scotland might stay in the UK, the election results showed enormous support for the SNP, so it will be interesting to see what will happen in the coming months.
Although it is fairly obvious that the UK, as a whole, relies on the EU as a partner for about half if their trade (about 51%), this is magnified when looking at Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland trades mostly with the EU. This is particularly true with the Republic of Ireland - about two-thirds of exports from the EU and roughly half of imports to the EU are traded with the Republic of Ireland.
Currently, the Irish backstop issue is one of the biggest barriers to finding an agreement, considering the political history between the two countries (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), and the fact that Northern Ireland does not want to be treated differently than any other country in the UK. Because they share their border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, this will prove to be very difficult.
All in all, Northern Ireland has the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal.
How is the outside world reacting to Brexit? More specifically, are international shoppers still buying British?
Currency and cross-border sales
Well, it’s no secret that the sterling has taken a bit of a tumble, but that couldn’t have surprised anyone when considering the outcome of the vote. Uncertainty is guaranteed to affect currencies.
If we look towards Europe specifically, the immediate impact showed that no big changes occurred in terms of Europeans buying British. The International Post Corporation released the results of an October 2016 poll recently. Digital buyers who made cross-border purchases in seven major European markets were surveyed.
In the three months since the Brexit vote, we can see that the UK still ranks in the top five for each of those countries. Topping the list was Ireland with 61% and Italy with 24%. France and Germany both hit 18% as well. It seems that as long as the UK is still in the EU, Europeans will continue buying from them.
Recommended reading: German online shoppers love buying British goods.
Recommended webinar recording: Expansion to the CEE region and how to handle expansion after Brexit
Outside of Europe
If you run a UK business that deals in cross-border sales, then there’s a good chance that you’ve seen international sales go up. People have jumped at the chance to buy British goods as the currency exchange has hit points that it hasn’t seen in a couple decades.
Although retailers might be losing out on the exchange rate, they seem to be more than making up for it in volume sales. In fact, PayPal recently announced that small and medium businesses (SMEs) in the UK who sell abroad saw sales go up.
The total amount being spent by international buyers rose 13% per transaction in the 6 months following the Brexit vote. However, UK businesses rely heavily on exports to the EU and it’s anyone’s guess how this will look when the Brexit process is finally completed. A lot of this depends on the negotiations dealing with access to the single market.
Even if we just look at the immediate impact, there is also a negative side to the slide in the sterling’s value to the euro. Sir Isaac Newton said it best with his famous quote: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As exports have increased, British businesses have also seen the cost of importing goods naturally go up, as well as the cost of petrol.
Who will be buying British in the future?
With Brexit looming, nations around the world are planning for this Post-Brexit world. Some have already started talks. New Zealand for example is eager to reach a new deal with the UK. They already have a trading relationship worth about £3 billion, while Great Britain is also the second largest foreign investor in New Zealand.
What happens with China will also be crucial. The UK has been seen by China as the backdoor into Europe, but will this still be the case? As China takes a leading role in Pacific trade with the RCEP trade agreement and in Africa and South Asia with the One Belt, One Road policy, will the UK be able to engage in these partnerships by linking in through Commonwealth countries? China is a powerhouse whether we like it or not and getting in on the action is very important in a post-Brexit world.
We can’t forget the EU either. Brexit may seem like a divorce from Europe, but the reality is that maintaining a good trade partnership is in both party’s best interests. The EU has taken a hard-line approach, perhaps wanting to send a message to the other 27 member countries that being a part of the EU is better than being out of it.
It’s clear that the UK relies heavily on the EU for their exports. This will probably change once everything is said and done. The question is just how dramatically things will change because both the UK and the EU will try to get the best deal possible that serves their own interests while also trying to grow. Only time will tell.
Another big question is what will happen with the USA? There is an obvious potential for a big trade deal between these two countries with a long, history. With recent revelations that Boris Johnson might sell out parts of the NHS in a trade deal with the US, British voters were justifiably worried.
In Boris Johnson's victory speech, he assured citizens that the NHS was a top priority for him and vowed that "Yes, we will recruit 50,000 more nurses and 6,000 more GPs, and we will build 40 new hospitals.”
Business after Brexit: What changes for UK businesses?
The EU Market
Currently the EU market covers 28 countries with 500 million potential customers. Not being part of the EU eliminates the privileges of free trade, free movement of goods and services (and people), and with it cuts off direct access to a massive pool of prospective buyers.
Along with Germany and France, the UK belongs to the strongest markets in the EU. But in the event of a Brexit, the internal market will be harmed. The UK will lose it's most important trading partners (excluding the US and China) with countries like Germany or upcoming markets including Spain.
Unwinding the relationship
The exact impact cannot be predicted yet, as this will mainly depend on what kind of relationship the EU and the UK negotiate for each other. According to Art. 50 of the EU Treaty which sets out the process of withdrawing from the Union, the UK must negotiate its new relationship terms within two years, but that has already proven impossible (multiple times). At this rate, even four years seems impossible.
Leaving the EU in the first place puts the UK in the position of a third county, i.e. a country that is not a member of the European Union. Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, this might be dealt with differently. However, if the status remains the one of a third country, this will have major effects.
Customs and duties & export costs
In the current situation, it is doubtful if any of the four freedoms will continue to be applicable for the UK. For e-commerce, this would mean that goods from the UK to the EU won't be sold in the internal market, but from a third country to the EU.
Therefore, customs duties might apply, making EU trade more expensive for UK retailers, especially for those in fashion who have succeeded in selling to countries like Germany, and could now struggle to remain competitive as EU consumers are attracted to more affordable offerings from other Member States (where no additional charges apply).
Particularly for small and medium size retailers, the cost of exporting to the EU will hinder their capacity to thrive, especially given that they will not be able to form strategic partnerships or retail co-operations easily, as some of the bigger brands can. As a result, imports to and exports from the UK will suffer.
The internal UK market might remain strong – because of its size, it could technically survive. Yet, this is only beneficial for those retailers focusing solely on the UK and will inhibit future opportunities for cross border commerce.
Consumer and competition laws
The laws relevant for e-commerce are mainly harmonised. The Consumer rights directive recently harmonised a lot of consumer protection laws and the even more recent UK initiative, the Consumer Rights Act 2015, made sure that the overhaul of the consumer protection landscape was in line with EU law.
Competition law is also harmonised. Harmonisation also means that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is accepted. Simplifying the laws and harmonising them was a big step to offer greater internationalisation opportunities. A Brexit will probably lead to a situation where the current laws are not repealed, however, eventually the interpretation of legislation will change, when English courts will not be required to consider the rulings of the ECJ.
Loss for both sides
A Brexit is not just a one-sided loss for the UK. The EU also loses an influential market. Particularly given that European consumers look to the UK for branded items and electronic goods, despite the fact that new trends and innovations arise in the US.
Ultimately, without the benefits of the internal market, customers can't be expected to embrace the UK, but will look for alternatives and even if British retailers are happy with their results on home soil, they should be wary of the growth opportunity a Brexit would deprive them of.
Preparing for a no-deal Brexit
HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) has released instructions for businesses that trade between the UK and the EU-27 (or with the rest of the world) in preparation for a no-deal Brexit. Simply answer a few questions and the site will provide you with information specific to your situation.
They’ve also prepared advice for businesses that:
Gov.uk has even prepared a site to help you
For a detailed look at more advice, check out ICAEW’s page that give advice for importers, exporters, high volume traders, companies that temporarily import or export goods to and from the EU.
You can also sign up for HMRC videos, webinars and email alerts.
However, most experts would advise you to keep close contact with your supply chains to figure out what they are doing to ensure continuous service.
Similarly, it might not be a bad idea to try stocking up on your most important products as long as the UK is still an EU member.
Either way, it's important to stay up-to-date on the newest developments as they happen.
Although it may have been a sad day for Remainers, it appears that progress is being made to moving ahead with Brexit once and for all. Only time will tell if it will benefit the UK or not.