“Put economy first” plead industry groups as Brexit negotiations begin

The UK’s largest industry groups have issued a joint plea to the government to prioritise the economy during the Brexit talks and to agree a transitional arrangement that preserves EU single market access.

The statement was released to coincide with the start of the Brexit negotiations today (June 19) and is the latest warning from business leaders against a Tory-led “hard Brexit”, which they fear would damage the economy by severing links with Europe.

EU political leaders are also worried that the Tory government’s chaotic leadership and weak hand, having lost their parliamentary majority in the general election, could lead to a “brutal Brexit” where talks collapse completely.

Five business groups, including the CBI and manufacturers group EEF, said it was essential that ministers reach an early deal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and UK citizens living in Europe.

The group are demanding a business-friendly trade deal that includes tariff free trading, minimal physical customs barriers and access to labour and skills. They are also calling for a flexible transitional arrangement to cushion Britain’s departure from the EU.

“The business community fully accepts the decision of voters last June that the UK will leave the European Union. We have come together to urge the government to put the economy first as it prepares to start formal negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU,” the joint statement from British Chambers of Commerce, CBI, EEF, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors said.

“This is a deal that when finally agreed will matter fundamentally for the UK economy, for UK companies and for citizens of the UK. A deal that supports growth will allow companies to hire more people, raise living standards and improve lives across the country.”

Such is the pressure on the crisis-hit government, which is frantically negotiating an agreement with the DUP to maintain a tiny parliamentary majority, that they have admitted that Brexit will log-jam British politics for another two years.

Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom said some MPs will tied up for 24 months working on the UK’s exit from the EU. They will spend their time on the Great Repeal Bill moving thousands of EU rules into British law.

Leadsom said next year’s Queens Speech has been cancelled in order to double the parliamentary session to two years and give MPs the “maximum amount of time to scrutinise these bills”, meaning the government will not put forward a legislative programme for next year.

Despite the move, the government has made no signal that it will shift from its hard Brexit stance.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said the Tories general election losses showed Theresa May’s “version of extreme Brexit has been rejected” and called on her to produce “different negotiating objectives, around which there could be a national consensus”.

If May continues with her “belligerent and reckless” approach to the negotiations, Starmer said Labour would join forces with backbenchers from across the Commons to defeat a hard Brexit “through the scrutiny, through the voting procedures.”

As well as working with the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats, Labour would also work with Europhile Tory MPs.

“I know from my discussions with very many Tory MPs that they did not think that extreme Brexit was the right way forward,” Starmer told the Guardian.

Last week, Tory MP Ken Clarke also called for a “cross-party” Brexit approach, while former PM David Cameron said the election results showed there was “pressure for a softer Brexit.”