LONDON – Business leaders from both sides of the English Channel urged Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday to accelerate talks on Britain’s exit from the European Union as uncertainty about future trade relations threatens jobs and investment.
European business leaders are urging Britain to make concrete proposals on the so-called divorce issues so the negotiations can move forward. The EU has refused to discuss trade until there is agreement on Britain’s financial obligations, citizens’ rights and the Irish border.
Industry groups from Germany, France, Britain and other EU countries deployed representatives to London amid concern that time is running out to ensure more than 550 billion pounds ($719 billion) of trade keeps flowing smoothly after the U.K. leaves the bloc in March 2019. They want a transitional period during which Britain would remain in the European single market and customs union so companies could adjust to the new relationship after Brexit.
“Business is extremely concerned with the slow pace of negotiations and the lack of progress,” said Emma Marcegaglia, president of BusinessEurope, an umbrella organization of business lobbies. “Business aims to avoid a cliff edge and therefore asks for a `status quo-like’ transitional arrangement with the U.K. staying in the customs union and the single market as this will best provide citizens and businesses with greater certainty.”
May had pledged to outline her hopes for a “bold and deep economic partnership” between Britain and the EU after Brexit. A statement from her office later said that May reassured the group with the oft-repeated sentiment that the U.K. was leaving the EU, not Europe, and expressed her commitment to giving businesses “the certainty they need by agreeing a time-limited implementation period as soon as possible.”
But tensions within her own government may make it difficult for the prime minister to deliver on her vision. After two ministers resigned from the Cabinet in recent weeks, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove are now under fire for their comments about a British woman imprisoned in Iran.
The pound fell a cent against the dollar, to below $1.31 in afternoon trading in London, on concern about the government’s weakness. A Sunday Times report that a group of lawmakers had signed a letter of no-confidence in May weighed on sterling’s performance.
“The 40 MPs is short of the 48 required to force a vote on her leadership and with Labour looking strong, going to the country again is the last thing most Conservative MPs want,” said Neil Wilson, an ETX Capital analyst. “Nevertheless, investors are rightly exercising caution on (the pound) given the risks with regards to the Brexit process.”
Meanwhile, The European Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, said Monday that Britain needs to pay the EU at least 60 billion euros ($69.9 billion) to cover the commitments it made as a member of the bloc. If the EU accepts less than that, European taxpayers will have to “make up the difference,” Germany’s Funke newspaper group quoted him as saying.
“Why should the Germans, Italians, Spanish or Dutch pay the Britons’ bill?” he said.
A senior German official said he’s worried about Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.
“We should all be prepared for the worst case actually happening in March 2019,” Deputy Finance Minister Thomas Steffen said, according to the dpa news agency. “And then we will see whether anyone in London or anywhere else can produce a different scenario. Today, I don’t see it.”