Friday 19 October 2018

Niall FitzGerald: Brexit gives Ireland a unique chance to grow, if we raise our business ambitions

Niall FitzGerald, Patron of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the INM-organised Brexit Breakfast event in Trinity College. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Niall FitzGerald, Patron of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the INM-organised Brexit Breakfast event in Trinity College. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Niall FitzGerald

MOST business people would rather avoid any political profile.

But I believe business has a vital responsibility to spell out both the perils of Brexit and how we can protect people against its worst effects. Future generations will not forgive us if we take refuge in ambiguous politeness.

Throughout my career, though always a proud Irishman, I have always championed a truly Global Britain.

That’s a Britain that has always been open to diverse talent from every corner of the globe, standing for open trade in open markets.

In today’s world, the reality is that Britain is indeed already “global” precisely because of the EU, not in spite of it.

But now, as it plans to turn its back on its largest market, the UK is already losing business, investment and talent. It has created a climate of uncertainty and unease which will not easily be reversed. And we all know that what is bad for Britain is potentially deeply damaging for Ireland.

Brexit will affect everything here and not just at the Border or in key sectors such as food and tourism.

So Ireland can’t afford to be shy about competing for the compensating opportunities that arise from Brexit.

UK companies will need an assured EU presence for the future and Ireland is the ideal choice for many of them.

Equally, we have to deliver the key nationwide enablers for Ireland’s success. This includes housing, transportation, broadband and world-class centres of research and learning.

This requires both the vision and delivery of a forceful and ambitious national strategy – one which can win and service the opportunities ahead.

Vitally, we must invest now not

only in physical infrastructure but also in the talent the world needs and which abounds in Ireland.

There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Ireland, but only if we act with world-scale ambition, the courage to spell out our vision and a focus on strong national execution.

Business has to get behind this national vision and play its part in its delivery.

Secondly, business must debunk – for once and for all – the notion of some Global Britain if the UK cuts loose from any close partnership with the EU.

Business should robustly challenge the fantasy that there are juicy trade deals which won’t be available to the UK within the EU.

There certainly won’t be favourable UK deals with the USA, China or India, all of whom want trade on their own terms.

The trade Germany already does from within the EU with USA and China is worth many multiples of what it does with the UK, so why should Britain feel restricted rather than rising to its already existing opportunity instead?

Thirdly, business must put forward practicable ideas on how to secure a mutually beneficial partnership between the UK and European Union in a way which is entirely pragmatic but helps to save face.

This is exactly what the British Irish Chamber of Commerce did last December when it set out its ‘Big Principles for a Strong Brexit Partnership’.

Those principles, drawn up by the chamber’s member businesses, recognise Britain’s predicament and the EU’s needs.

They propose a comprehensive new customs partnership which can enable border-less trade for both goods and services (because we shouldn’t protect only goods at the expense of the even more important trade in services).

Mirroring the ECJ for dispute settlement, these principles would deliver regulatory equivalence for the common protection of all.

They would align the UK’s tariffs with the Common External Tariff and give the UK parallel access to new EU global trade deals.

The UK would retain control of immigration, but also access to the EU skills it needs.

And the UK and EU would continue to rationally co-operate in key common-interest areas. Business and politics alike need to back this powerful package now, before the UK crashes deal-less out of the EU.

Lastly, we should remind ourselves what else Ireland now risks losing — its closest ally and staunchest friend on many issues in Brussels.

We have shared with Britain a common agenda on economics, justice and trade.

Britain has stoutly defended the right of individual countries to set their own tax regime.

The UK has taken the lead and given us cover on matters where we have stayed under the radar while opprobrium was hurled at our neighbour.

An accelerated programme of EU integration will soon be back on the EU agenda, with France and Germany controlling almost 35pc of the votes.

This will change Ireland’s relationship and we may only understand how much we miss the UK when it is gone.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney’s recent Chatham House speech strikes the right balance of Ireland’s commitment to its own EU membership but noting also that “Ireland needs and wants a happy and prosperous UK”.

This can best be achieved through negotiating on the principles I’ve set out which will be better for growth, jobs and the future of Europe.

But we must act now because the fuse is burning dangerously close to the end.

Niall FitzGerald is the Patron of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and former chief executive of Unilever

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