Businesses battered by Brexit urge Labour and Tories to slash EU tariffs

The next UK government must urgently focus on a better trading relationship with the EU as Brexit has increased costs and made it tougher to export, one of the country’s most influential business networks has said.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) published its election manifesto on Tuesday, citing improved relations with the trading bloc as part of its five demands for whoever wins the general election on July 4.

The manifesto says leaving the EU made it “more expensive and bureaucratic to sell our goods and services across the Channel” – but that better terms are possible to help firms trade.

Shevaun Haviland, director general of the BCC, said: “The EU is the UK’s biggest market, so we urgently need to get a better trading relationship with our closest neighbour.

“It’s not about rewriting the referendum result, it’s about cutting red tape and promoting trade.”

Both Labour and the Conservatives have drawn criticism for avoiding discussion of Brexit and the country’s future relationship with Europe.

Writing in The Independent, Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, a prominent figure in Margaret Thatcher’s government, said this general election will be “the most dishonest in modern times” because of the refusal of the main parties to debate the consequences of Brexit.

He said: “The state of our economy, defence and environment, the need to level up our society, control immigration and restore Britain’s standing in the world. None of these issues can be honestly addressed in isolation from our relationship with Europe. Yet Europe is the no-go area.”

Lord Michael Heseltine warns election campaign will be ‘dishonest’ (Aaron Chown/PA)
Lord Michael Heseltine warns election campaign will be ‘dishonest’ (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Archive)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer wants to build closer ties with the EU but has previously ruled out Britain rejoining the Single Market or the Customs Union, or bringing back freedom of movement.

Horticulture and food companies have previously warned that red tape due to physical border controls that began in April this year could create an “existential” crisis.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said in a report earlier this month that the government had no clear timetable to fully implement its post-Brexit border controls with the EU.

The government has stated the aim of having the “world’s most effective border” by 2025, but the NAO said the strategy “lacks a clear timetable and an integrated cross-government delivery plan”.

It said repeated changes to and deferrals of the plan to introduce full-import controls have led to uncertainty for businesses and extra costs for the government and ports.

Research from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) showed almost one in 10 small firms that used to export or import goods have stopped doing so in the past five years, in part due to costs, the volume of paperwork, and supply chain or logistical issues.

Martin McTague, national chair of the FSB, said: “New border processes have been worryingly complex and costly for SMEs. A lack of coordinated policy approach has led to confusion – and it’s right that these challenges have been highlighted in the NAO report.”

He added: “With more changes on the horizon it’s crucial that small businesses are able to plan ahead. They need clarity and certainly don’t have time to unravel confusing messages from a variety of different Whitehall departments. The Government should communicate with SMEs with a single voice, setting out clear and realistic timescales for any future changes.

“Government needs to ensure that changes are better planned, timetabled and tested to ensure that operations run smoothly. This will minimise damage to trade and indeed our international global reputation.”

The Independent previously reported that Brexit is leaving a hole of almost £100bn in annual UK exports, making Britain’s economy worse off than it would have been, had it remained in the European Union.

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