CEOs Seek Access to EU Trade, Workers After Brexit

  • Employers in conflict with voters seeking immigration curbs
  • CEOs seek clarity on timetable for EU pullout negotiations

U.K. Businesses Lobby to Maintain EU Market Access

The vote is over but the campaign continues.

With financial markets reeling from the Brexit vote, U.K. companies are stepping up lobbying to maintain access to the European Union’s single market and labor, deepening potential rifts with British “Leave” voters who want to curb immigration.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called an emergency meeting Thursday of his Business Advisory Group, which includes chief executive officers of companies like BP Plc, Whitbread Plc and EasyJet Plc, according to a person familiar with the situation. On Tuesday afternoon, U.K. Business Secretary Sajid Javid has invited two dozen senior executives to a separate gathering.

Many business leaders object to some “Leave” campaigners’ demands for immigration restrictions. They’re expected to press for continued freedom to hire workers from other EU countries, along with access to the bloc’s tariff-free export market -- key aspects of the U.K.’s current membership in the EU. They also want the government to spell out a time frame for negotiations with Brussels and concrete steps to shore up the economy after financial markets plunged following Thursday’s vote. 

“While it is prudent for the U.K. government to delay firing the starting gun on negotiations with the European Union, firms want a clear timetable and simultaneous action to support the wider economy,” said Adam Marshall, acting director of the British Chamber of Commerce. He also said business is seeking clarity on plans for infrastructure projects such as the planned high-speed railway from London to the north of England.

Trade, Workers

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a prominent “Leave” campaigner and a leading candidate to replace David Cameron as prime minister, said Monday that he wanted the U.K. to remain a member of the single market and did not think those who voted to quit the EU were driven by anxieties over immigration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that the U.K. would not be able to pick and choose EU benefits of membership without the duties of members.

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said he would push for the government to make sure companies can continue to trade with the EU and hire the workers they need from overseas. Business leaders are also expected to urge Javid to take steps to protect the rights of EU workers currently in the country.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said businesses welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to delay invoking Article 50, which gives the government two years to conclude new arrangements with the EU but urged rapid clarity on who is making decisions.

“What we need is a plan,” she wrote in the Times newspaper. “The government should remove uncertainties over the long-term right to stay in the U.K. for those already working here as soon as possible.”

A survey by the Institute of Directors after the referendum highlighted business leaders’ concerns around Brexit. A third of the respondents said the outcome of Thursday’s vote will cause them to cut investment in their businesses, while a quarter said they will institute a hiring freeze.

‘Spilled Milk’

“There is no point crying over spilled milk,” said Simon Walker, director-general of the institute, a business networking group. "But these results highlight the importance of the Bank of England maintaining stability in the financial system. It is crucial that the banks do not starve businesses of cash.”

On Tuesday, Shriti Vadera, chairman of the U.K. arm of Banco Santander SA, chaired a meeting of banking industry representatives organized by the British Bankers Association to discuss steps to maintain financial stability and protect jobs in the wake of the vote to exit the EU.

(Corrects date of banking industry meeting in last paragraph.)
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