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Businesses applaud Brexit deal - but urge clarity on transition

Prime Minister Theresa May and EU President Jean-Claude Juncker at a press conference at the EU Commission in Brussels
Gary McDonald Business Editor

WHILE businesses in the north have applauded the free trade deal and frictionless border aspect of the Brexit breakthrough deal, they insist more clarity is needed on the transition to ensure firms suspend contingency plans many are putting in place.

The last-minute deal struck after late night/early morning talks in London and Brussels agreed there will be no "hard border" with Ireland, while EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, will see their rights protected.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the "breakthrough" meant Brexit talks could now move on to the next phase, and he said he was confident EU leaders will approve it.

"This is an important political milestone, but clarity on transition is the most important thing from a business point of view at this stage," CBI national president Paul Drechsler warned.

The business lobby group's regional director Angela McGowan said businesses in Northern Ireland will welcome the Brexit talks moving on to the all-important second phase.

“We remain some way from a comprehensive solution to the Irish border issue, but companies are pleased to see both sides make explicit commitments to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and to the seamless, frictionless trade both north/south and east/west that the CBI has called for."

She added: “With further progress made on transition and guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, we move a step closer to achieving the clarity and stability we need to protect jobs, improve living standards and deliver prosperity for all citizens in Northern Ireland.”

Belfast-born IoD director-general Stephen Martin - who'd previously insisted that getting the question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic right would be the litmus test of a successful Brexit - said companies urgently needed certainty about the future of EU staff in the UK.

"We have grounds to hope now that our members will be able to send their employees off for the Christmas break feeling more comfortable about their status here," he said.

"We look forward to further clarity about what the UK's objectives are for that new relationship, as well as a firm commitment on transition in the very near future.

The NI Chamber of Commerce was more cautious in its welcome, insisting the negotiations still have a long way to run and urging a swift start to trade talks.

Its chief executive Ann McGregor said: “Business will particularly welcome the commitment made towards no hard border on the island of Ireland and that the all island market will be protected, but there are details that need to be confirmed swiftly in the new year when negotiators move on to the big questions around our future trade relationship with the EU.

“The mutual commitment to a transition period will support business confidence, but answers will be needed on what leaving the EU will mean exactly for regulation, customs, hiring, standards, tariffs and taxes.

"The job of the UK government and the European Commission now is to provide those answers – and do everything in their power to ensure vibrant trade between the UK, Ireland and other EU countries can continue.”

Wilfred Mitchell of the Federation of Small Businesses in the north said the final Brexit deal must have as few barriers to trade as possible, adding: "The focus must now shift to the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU.

"This should include by early next year a guarantee that there will be no cliff-edge moment on Brexit day, but instead an orderly, time-limited transition period so that small firms only have one set of rule changes."

On citizens' rights he added: "As we leave the EU, businesses will need to continue to be able to find the workers and skills that they require, and this pledge is an encouraging sign of a sensible, pro-business attitude."

Retail NI's Glyn Roberts and Declan Billington from the NI Food & Drink Association both welcomed the decision that the Stormont Executive and Assembly will be given the flexibility to find local solutions to address local challenges Brexit may bring to the economy - and each insisted the political parties need to urgently start talks to restore the institutions "and do the job they are elected to do".

 

Mr Roberts said: “Now more than ever we need the Executive restored and to have local ministers ensuring Northern Ireland’s voice is heard loud and clear in these challenging times ahead.”

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