I recently had a meeting with my local MP, who also happens to be Minister for International Business – a post created post-Brexit by Theresa May’s Government.
I met Dr Liam Fox to ask him about legislation affecting late payment of business invoices and what the consequences of Brexit might be for UK SMEs: would UK-specific legislation be introduced to protect the interests of smaller businesses, many of which suffer cashflow problems because of deliberate late payment policies being exercised by larger organisations? I told him I understood from Clare Moody, the local MEP, that there is EU legislation but (a) it is rarely used by SMEs because they fear their customers will blacklist them and (b) once the UK leaves the EU that legislation will no longer apply. I explained I had no such late payment issues myself but I was aware it was a significant matter for many.
Dr Fox said he’d refer the matter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
While I was there I also asked him how in his ministerial role he could negotiate treaties outside the EU when such negotiations are forbidden for all EU members – and the UK is for now of course still part of the Union. He said while it was true no EU member state can sign a treaty purely on its own behalf with a non-EU state there is nothing to stop any country having discussions. Britain could, he said, do a lot of groundwork this way so that it could be ready to sign a treaty similar to those non-EU countries already have with the EU at a minute past midnight on the day of our exit. I thought it was interesting he phrased it this way ie. that British treaties with others might be similar to EU treaties with others. Is that the plan, I wondered?
He also said:
- it was in everyone’s interests to make the transition as smooth as possible. He said any disruption might not affect only the UK: for instance, he said, it was perfectly possible under WTO regulations that, post-Brexit, non-EU organisations or countries might litigate against the 27 remaining EU countries for changing the terms under which a treaty was originally signed because the UK was no longer included in its terms. (Come to think of it, that probably explains his thinking in the paragraph above.)
- the path to Brexit was unclear and would remain so for some time. As instances of this he mentioned forthcoming national elections in various EU countries plus the USA. He seemed to me to place most emphasis on the French elections and least on the German ones.
- yes, it’s true (he said) the referendum was partly about UK sovereignty and therefore about the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. But that didn’t mean the Government would debate Brexit bargaining strategy openly in Parliament. “I didn’t hear anyone discussing or demanding this before the referendum,” he said. “They only bring it up now.” That kind of public debate would be madness, he said – it would weaken the Government’s bargaining position. But he conceded there should be debate at least about broad principles.
Pretty much the last thing I asked him was whether he thought Brexit might herald the end of the EU. He said it was possible: it would depend on how the EU itself reacted to changed circumstances. Britain was not alone in placing emphasis on national sovereignty, he said, and the degree to which the EU recognised and accommodated this would be crucial. The EU was once a trading bloc but its agenda now goes much further, he said. If it continues on its collective path the net effect might be counter-productive – but there was no sign the EU yet saw this. “Look at the back and forth on CETA this week,” he said. “The EU response has been to require even more control in future from the centre.”
It was interesting to hear a Brexiteer making a business as well as a democratic case for leaving the EU. I didn’t and don’t agree but the meeting did show that people are capable of having very different views.
The question, of course, is whether the views he or indeed anyone expresses are genuine or are merely for public consumption. I suspect as is so often the case in politics Brexit will be presented with robust determination while in the background everyone will be winging it. I’d bet policy will emerge from outcomes rather than vice versa.