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Bristol's businesses express a mixture of feelings towards Brexit ahead of Article 50 being invoked

Businesses from Bristol and the wider region expressed uncertainty, future risks and opportunities arising from Brexit at an event at Bristol Airport today (24 March). However, the consensus was that the business community needed to lobby its position to government, adapt and maximise the opportunities it would also create.

The event, which was attended by some 100 delegates, comes just a few days before Article 50 is to be invoked, marking the beginning of negotiations over the next two years.

Ashley Fox MEP for South West of England and leader of the Conservatives in Brussels, was confident that a deal regarding the rights of EU citizens currently working in the UK and vice versa could be done quickly but that money could be the sticking point between the two sides. He said: “It’s not helpful for the EU to be talking about how much the UK will need to pay to leave the Union. Of course it is likely that we will have to pay for outstanding commitments and aspects we want to continue, such as Horizon 2020, which is the largest EU Research and Innovation programme.”

Mark Summers, Managing Director at Avon Valley Precision Engineering, a leading precision component manufacturer for the aerospace industry, commented: “Much of our raw material is outsourced from Europe and due to inflationary pressures as a result of the currency situation, this will impact on our costs. In addition, many of our products demand fast turnaround so if they end up getting stuck in customs then we won’t be competitive with our European counterparts.

Summers also pointed to the skills challenge, adding: “The skills issue created by Brexit has focussed on unskilled labour. But UK manufacturing depends on very skilled EU workers. If they decide to repatriate we are going to be left with a chronic skills shortage.”

David Pothecary, UK Export Business Continuity at Kerry, a leading manufacturer of ingredients for the food industry, said: “Brexit could affect certain operations, for example ingredients for our UK manufactured dried powder flavourings are produced in several EU countries and require multiple movements between the UK and the EU. Any trade barriers would be a concern to us. Additionally, a number of our UK-based staff are from the EU and this could create a challenge going forward.”

Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive at Bristol Airport highlighted that only 6% of their passengers were from outside the EU and that Brexit is creating considerable uncertainty amongst airport operators and airlines across the UK. He indicated that the airport would be calling upon Government for clarity and transitional arrangements during Brexit negotiations.

Chris Pritchett, Head of Energy and Partner in the Commercial Team at law firm Foot Anstey focused on a positive message, calling for businesses to come together and collectively make Brexit an opportunity. He said: “It presents an opportunity for us to leverage what makes us special, moving towards our goals, not away from the risks.”

Similarly, James Durie, Chief Executive of Bristol Chamber of Commerce & West of England Initiative at Business West, remarked that despite all the complexity and the current uncertainty business will need to evolve and adapt to the new trading environment as this develops and that Business West will be working to better inform businesses and represent their interests to government. He reinforced the need for government to provide as much certainty as it can and help provide support to the 5,500 businesses that currently export from Bristol and across the South West so they can be best positioned to sustain and grow their trade with EU markets.

Chair of the debate, James Turgoose, Head of Public Policy at JBP Parliamentary Affairs, concluded: “It was a fascinating discussion and particularly striking was how Brexit is going to impact upon almost all aspects of the economy and that businesses both large and small need to be planning now to develop their position and lobby government and local politicians.”

The event was organised by JBP Parliamentary Affairs & Business West with support from Foot Anstey & Bristol Airport.