Niall FitzGerald blasts the “reckless ignorance” of Brexit at FT Brexit and Beyond Summit

Business | Wed 6 Dec | Author – Business & Finance

Former Unilever Chief Executive Niall FitzGerald blasted the “reckless ignorance” of Brexit at the FT Brexit and Beyond Summit this morning. Read the full text of his speech here.

Niall FitzGerald KBE DSA, former Chief Executive of Unilever and Patron of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce gave a speech entitled “A Brexit that works for all – Big principles for a strong Brexit partnership” this morning at the FT Brexit and Beyond conference in London, which he has kindly provided the text of exclusively to Business & Finance in Ireland. 

“Thank you for your kind introduction and, without wishing to be being rude at the outset, I want to start by saying that in fact I deeply regret being here at all…

I really would rather be somewhere else this morning – anywhere but talking about Brexit – not because I’m suffering from Brexit fatigue like so many – far from it – but because we really should not have gotten ourselves into this situation in the first place.

We really should not have gotten ourselves into this situation in the first place”

We can debate whether Brexit is the result of political hubris or of an unbalanced recovery or the inevitable effect of a loss of British identity. But it’s happening and it’s costing us already in lost business and lost talent.

And far from making money from Leaving, as we were so cynically promised, I really do wish the UK was spending £50 billion on the UK rather than paying an Exit Bill that stops us delivering a worldclass health service or housing for all or university places for learning and research.

As has been said elsewhere, we’ll be paying £50 billion for nothing but the privilege of not being in the European club, for the right to sit in splendid isolation – cut off from our closest neighbours, trading with them on inferior terms that guarantee a slow but sure decline in the wellbeing of all of us.

We’ll be paying £50 billion for nothing but the privilege of not being in the European club”

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not in the business of saying “I told you so”. Neither am I in the business of wallowing in some “begrudging Leave” position.

Because of COURSE I have to accept the CURRENT view that Brexit is inevitable, I’m in the business of realism and in proposing the SOLUTIONS (and I’ll say more on this shortly) rather than bemoaning the PROBLEMS.

Mostly, I’m in the business of Business, having spent 37 years in one of the UK’s finest global businesses – Unilever. And in my time there and since, I have been constantly advancing the cause of Britain as a word-class centre for multinational investment and scientific research, delivering the best of both British and international talent and access to the UK’s world-class university and research community.

So it is deeply troubling to watch the reckless ignorance of so many so-called leaders in the face of a predictable, potentially fatal but hopefully avoidable undermining of what this great nation has achieved by working together with our partner nations for the common good over the past 40 years – a period in which our peace, power and prosperity were enhanced and underpinned.

It is deeply troubling to watch the reckless ignorance of so many so-called leaders”

And I’m not so naive as to say the UK – and not least the City – is going to shut down tomorrow. The truth is that trade will of course continue but on materially lower returns to shareholders, to employees and to government, because the only thing that Brexit will do to their wellbeing is to reduce real incomes and increase real costs.

And, while the City and British industry and research institutions will still exist, I suggest that over the next ten years we will find ourselves looking back and noticing that we got no material new international investment once we chose to isolate ourselves and once the world saw better returns in more open markets elsewhere, and all the new investment ended up growing other trading nations, not ours.

And closer to home, Trade is one thing but Financial Services are surely another thing altogether. Britain’s biggest export sector is now at obvious risk on the technicalities of Brexit in terms of passporting and capital allocation and access to the skills it needs.

Britain’s biggest export sector is now at obvious risk

But look a bit deeper and you’ll not only see other centres vying to eat the City’s lunch, but you’ll also see that we’ve opened a Pandora’s Box where Brexit is causing global financial services players to “rationalise” a decision to move certain business to other centres, by saying they should have long ago avoided being too concentrated in a single centre like London anyway. And many, including some in the room here I’ve no doubt, are already well advanced in plans to de-risk their Brexit exposure by establishing elsewhere before it’s too late.

Now I know it’s tough being a politician – you have to do boring things like learn about the arcane world of different trade environments – all those initials like the WTO and the EEA and the EFTA – and you have to know the rules of different things like not being able to Have Your Cake and Eat It.

So you have to make choices and you have to say smarter things than “Brexit Means Brexit”, not to be popular but because people’s jobs depend on you actually knowing what you’re talking about.

People’s jobs depend on you actually knowing what you’re talking about

In the real world, you have no option but to tell the truth from learning and understanding facts and if they’re too complicated for you, then don’t worry because plain old common sense may be enough to get you through. So let’s try a bit of that here…

Suppose you fall out with your Golf Club. You’ve decided you just don’t get on with the Committee any more. You tell the Club Secretary you’ve had enough of the rules, you’ve decided you’re leaving and you won’t be paying your fees any longer.

Oh and by the way, you’d still like to play every Saturday morning at 10am…

I suspect the Club Secretary may ask you what you’re going to put on the table for the rest of the Members to give you at least a hearing…

The UK has an entirely democratic right to Leave the EU but, in exercising that democratic right, it would be sensible to have some specific understanding of the consequences.

And no matter how valued the UK’s Membership might be, it’s hard to expect the EU and its 27 other Member States to respond proactively to the UK’s request to stay engaged, without having yet – including this week – had a consistent proposal of exactly how.

Events this week show that, in politics, anything is possible among people who want to agree. But politics are fraught with danger too and so the voice of Business becomes all the more important now in helping to devise Trade-inspired Solutions to genuine political problems.

In politics, anything is possible among people who want to agree

That’s why the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, the trade organisation of which I am Patron, last week published a short set of key principles to break the deadlock between the UK and the EU. The Chamber’s “Big Principles for a Strong Brexit Partnership” set out a new narrative respecting both the outcome of the UK referendum in support of some form of Brexit, and equally the EU’s reasonable need to understand exactly what kind of Brexit we want.

These Big Principles provide a template capable of agreement by all the participants and I urge all of them – including you – to engage on them rapidly before the UK crashes deal-less out of the EU. The consequences of that would be disastrous, with by far the greatest damage being to the local jobs and wellbeing of families who depend on them throughout the UK. The EU of course will be seriously damaged too by the loss of its second largest member state and – for now – the sixth largest economy in the world. And given our exceptional interconnectedness, East/West as well as North/South, Ireland will be exceptionally impacted, deeply wounding a set of relationships that has delivered both peace and prosperity for decades. We must stop this happening, and now.

That’s why so much attention has been paid to the consequences of Brexit for the future of Northern Ireland’s trade – and the peace and wellbeing which it sustains. And even now, the UK still needs to be much clearer on the exact principles underlying its intended form of Brexit – not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole of the UK.

The British Irish Chamber’s Big Principles give the UK and EU a clear strawman to negotiate before time runs out for both. And like any strawman, these Big Principles involve choices between competing ideals and specifically between controls on Free Movement and on independent Global Trade Deals.

These Big Principles involve choices between competing ideals”

On the latter, we should ask ourselves exactly which country does the UK government want to independently trade with that it doesn’t already, or soon will, through membership of the EU and that’s worth any money on terms we could agree?

The answer can hardly be the USA, whose Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, recently made chillingly clear that “Even our Friends have to Play by the Rules” – so enjoy what may be the last of your chlorine-free chicken this lunchtime…

And of course we now clearly understand that President Trump will “put America first”!

And neither can the answer be India where Mr Modi wants British passports for every Indian; and it’s hardly Australia and New Zealand either because the EU is already developing an Agreement with them – and if you think China will have Britain’s best interests at heart in a non-EU deal, then you may need to see me after class…

So let’s get real here – if there was any other country that offers the UK a better economic partnership, we would already be negotiating it. So it makes no sense for the UK to demand freedom to deal independently, dragging us all over a cliff-edge if it can’t.

It makes no sense for the UK to demand freedom to deal independently

At the other end of the wish-list of what’s really important to the UK people, while I sadly regret it, I see no change since the referendum in the UK’s difficulties with Immigration. Free Movement is clearly a core tenet of the Single Market framework, so it’s naive to think the UK can retain membership of the Single Market given the gap between us on this defining issue.

So, what’s set out in the Big Principles initiative is a pragmatic recognition of the UK’s genuine predicament. The UK must now clearly choose whether control over Free Movement is more important to it than Freedom to Trade with some un-named low-value countries. The answer to that is obvious and it consequently defines the nature of the post-Brexit relationship that the UK actually wants to negotiate with the EU – the UK will leave The Customs Union of the European Union but will participate with the EU in A New Customs Partnership.

This will allow for continued trade of Goods with a comprehensive deal also for Services, and for co-development of new trade deals and rational cooperation in key common-interest areas. The EU already has a tailored bilateral customs arrangement with Turkey and, given the globally significant scale of the UK, it makes sense to include the UK in any future trade deals agreed by the EU given the UK’s attraction to third countries alongside the EU 27.

It makes sense to include the UK in any future trade deals agreed by the EU”

These Principles can only be high-level at this stage and they will need a Transition Phase of as long as it takes for the detailed implementation work. But they positively disrupt the current dangerous vacuum and they put a specific package of ingredients on the table that can deliver real practicable solutions, with the least amount of compromises for either the UK or the EU.

And what they can deliver is as follows –

  1. A trade relationship between the UK and the EU that is effectively borderless (including in Ireland and at UK ports) and free from tariff and non-tariff barriers and enabling trade in both goods AND SERVICES (where of course the EU has precedents of various success, such as CETA);Secondly they deliver …
  2. Effective regulatory equivalence and mutual recognition of qualifications and standards, with the UK as an associate member in Europe-wide regulatory bodies for closest cooperation in areas such as Education, Research, Safety, Aviation, Cyber, Digital and Energy;Third, they can deliver –
  3. An alignment of the UK’s tariffs with the established Common External Tariff and continued regulatory and standards alignment to protect the UK from an influx of cheaper, lower quality goods which would endanger citizen safety in manufacturing and food production;Fourthly –
  4. Access to EU labour for the skills that UK businesses need and likewise to UK resources for EU benefit;Fifth-
  5. Access for the UK to new global trade deals that are mutually beneficial by working independently of, but in parallel with, the EU;and lastly –
  6. An alternative model to the ECJ for dispute settlement, just as exists in other EU trade deals.

And to those of you ask “is this not having our cake and eating it” and “Why would the EU agree to such a relationship?”… in the real world neither side of any negotiation gets everything they want and, in these proposals, the UK gets to manage its own migration to get the skills it wants, but there are controls then on UK people entering the EU;

In the real world neither side of any negotiation gets everything they want

In these proposals, the UK recognises it does better by tracking future EU trade deals rather than going out shopping to get worse value on its own;

And in these proposals, the UK gets the benefit of EU standards and regulations so it can trade on similar terms even if its role is as an Inputter rather than as final arbiter.

And the UK gets to participate as a valuable member in key EU groupings in such common-interest areas as Education, Aviation, Energy and Security. That, together with a strong post-Brexit relationship with the UK, is good for what the EU itself wants to do in the future too.

It’s worth noting also that many if not all of these elements have been variously hinted at in various UK discussion documents. But what has been missing is the aggregating of them into a single template that not only breaks the critical deadlock on Northern Ireland’s border but goes on to solve almost all issues with the least compromise for either the UK or the EU.

With the clock counting down to success or failure and with Investment in the UK already slowing, the weakened Pound already raising UK prices and key talent already leaving the UK well before any actual Brexit, a hard Brexit will be disastrous for us all and inexcusable for those who permit it.

I earnestly hope that the work started in relation to Northern Ireland will be quickly transposed, as it must, to the future relationship of the whole of the UK with the whole of the EU.

Our approach shows a clear way forward. Founded equally on democratic respect and common sense, constructive Principles of the type I’ve outlined will be better for growth and for the future of Europe, the UK and Ireland.

It’s time for business voices to make a difference in the course of events now. We need urgently to stop the shadow boxing and to support all sides to commit to Principles such as these or prove to us why they won’t deliver a better future for all those they represent.”

An interview with Niall FitzGerald appears in the new book, “Ireland Inc: A History of Irish Business” available to buy now