Brexit talks now ‘high-wire political theatre’ - UK business chief

Paul Drechsler, outgoing president of CBI, warns of ‘another moment of danger’

Outgoing president of the Confederation of British Industry Paul Drechsler said the problems around Brexit were so great that solutions could not be delayed until October.

Outgoing president of the Confederation of British Industry Paul Drechsler said the problems around Brexit were so great that solutions could not be delayed until October.

 

Negotiations around the UK’s exit from the EU are entering a period of “high-wire political theatre,” the outgoing president of the Confederation of British Industry has said.

Paul Drechsler, the Dubliner who led the influential UK business group until this week, said the talks were facing another dangerous moment with next week’s summit of EU leaders. He warned that the problems to be resolved around Brexit were so great that solutions could not be delayed until October.

Both sides have set October as the deadline for agreement on a final withdrawal treaty, including a solution to maintain an invisible Irish border, in time for ratification to meet the UK’s exit next March.

“It would be quite unusual if, between all the parties, they don’t find a way to fudge through the end of June,” Mr Drechsler told The Irish Times on a visit to Dublin where he spoke at the Institute of International and European Affairs.

“It would be out of character but I wouldn’t take comfort from that because the sheer weight of issues to be resolved by October would be seismic.”

Negotiations between the EU and UK have stalled over a solution that would avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit as London and Brussels remain poles apart on a potential fix with just nine months until Britain departs the union.

Mexican standoff

The Government and the EU’s negotiating “task force” want to see substantial progress on the Border issue by next week’s European Council and have warned of the increasing risk of a no-deal scenario.

Mr Drechsler, who represented 195,000 British companies as CBI president until he stepped down this week, said the talks were at “another moment of danger and challenge.”

The longer the negotiations continue without solution, the more complex Brexit looks, he said.

“You cannot see a last-minute solution to an issue like this,” he said. “There is a danger that we see a Mexican standoff and sees who chickens out first. It doesn’t feel to me to be that sort of negotiation partly because it has got so many dimensions.”

He blamed the clash of economics and ideology for the impasse as the Conservative Party at Westminster continues to be roiled with divisions over what form Brexit should take.

“We have a tidal wave of politics and ideology coming up against fact, evidence and economics - and the reconciliation of both of those is far from easy,” he said.

Warnings from UK businesses that a hard Brexit would be “bad for everyone” were falling on deaf ears while the British economy was still growing, said Mr Drechsler.

“If somebody tries to hit you with the economic stick and your issues are deep-rooted in belief and ideology, the economic stick won’t work,” he said.

The situation “behoves everybody to say that we need to find a way through this,” he said. “There is no way through it without deep understanding, mutual respect, flexibility and compromise.”

In the meantime, he and the CBI, the British equivalent of Irish business lobby group Ibec, were advising businesses: “You need to plan for the worst.”

The risks of a hard Brexit, which would “grind the UK, the EU and Ireland to some kind of halt,” were so great that it should motivate all sides to find a solution, he said.

“Do we really think that we are going to ground some airplanes all over Europe, block up ports, create havoc in the world of pharmacy and food for all parties?” he said. “Somewhere or other there is quite an incentive to find a solution.”