U.K. Businesses, Officials Push For Clarity, Transitional Deal With European Union
Rich Walker directs a robotics company, Shadow Robot, out of a modest office in London.
He's tired of the British government fighting over how to exit the European Union. It's hurting his business.
"The fuse is burning," he says, referring to March 2019 deadline. "And we've not managed to get anything done or sorted out since last year."
Walker, who wanted Britain to remain in the EU, wants to know if some of his roboticists will be forced to leave because of tougher immigration rules. He wants to reassure his customers, many of them professors dependent on research grants, that the British economy and the currency, the pound, will stay stable.
He wiggles the fingers of a black-and-silver robotic hand that costs more than $150,000.
"These go all over the world, into research communities, people doing advanced technology around robotics," he says. "We need to know what's going on with tax and trade rules. We need to have an idea of where the economy is going so we can plan."
The government of British Prime Minister Theresa May is torn between those who want a clean break from the European Union and those who want to preserve as many ties as possible, such as remaining in the single market and the customs union, after Britain leaves the EU in 2019.
The infighting has gotten so bad that it's recorded in breathless detail daily in the British press. It's been at full pitch since disastrous elections in June left May's conservative government hanging on to power.
Pro-EU Cabinet members such as Philip Hammond, who leads the U.K. Treasury, want a slower exit. Hammond is pushing a transitional deal with the EU that would keep current trade rules in place until new rules can be negotiated.
"When the British people voted last June, they did not vote to become poorer or less secure," he told financiers in a recent speech. "They did vote to leave the EU and we will leave the EU. But it must be done in a way that works for Britain."
What works for Britain is now up for grabs, especially when it comes to immigration rules.
May's office said there are plans to end the free movement of EU citizens to and from the U.K. after March 2019. Others in her Cabinet want the doors to stay open.
Alan Soady of the U.K.'s Federation for Small Business wants clarity.
"If you run a small business, let's say a tech start-up company, you have five employees, two of those are EU citizens; you want to know whether they are going to be able to stay," Soady says. "If you are recruiting right now, and employing an EU national, you don't know whether that person will come under the new arrangement or whatever the old arrangement is. And businesses do need some certainty around that."
Citing business concerns, staunchly pro-EU politicians are seizing on the government's Brexit paralysis.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sky News he hopes Brexit is dead.
"I think it's absolutely necessary that it doesn't happen because everyday it brings us fresh evidence that it's doing us damage economically," he said. "Certainly, doing us damage politically."
There are indeed signs that Brexit is damaging the City of London, the historic financial center. For starters, big banks are looking to relocate their European headquarters.
"They are reaching the point where they can no longer wait to see what the government is deciding to do," says Barbara Casu, a professor at London's Cass Business School. "We are hearing news of banks choosing the new headquarters within the European Union. For example, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch has announced a move to Dublin, following on Morgan Stanley choosing Frankfurt."
Outside the Lamb Tavern, a pub in the financial district where insurance executives are having lunchtime pints, there's talk of moving their headquarters to Luxembourg.
But David Buik, a market commentator with city broker Panmure Gordon, says talk of London's demise as a global financial hub is misguided.
"I've been here in the city for 55 years," he says. "And I have seen the evolution and the development of the City of London on the international basis. And we have nothing whatsoever to be frightened of."
Unlike many in the financial district, Buik supports Brexit. His peers, he says, "want me taken away by two guys in a white coat. But I'll live with that."
There are many more Brexit supporters in the town of Romford on the outskirts of London. It's in the borough of Havering; near 70 percent of voters there cast ballots to leave the EU, one of the highest pro-leave percentages in the country.
Town Councillor Lawrence Webb of the nationalist UKIP party blames EU bureaucracy for Romford's economic woes.
"Just take a look around you. There is a boarded-up shop there; there is a boarded-up shop on the corner there," he says, walking down a lively main street. "We have in Romford town center an above-average number of businesses that are closed or not trading."
He's wants Britain to leave the EU as soon as possible and restore its prosperity through new trade deals with the U.S.
Rich Walker, the roboticist, says that with all the chaos in the government, a quick exit seems highly unlikely.
"But if [Brexit] didn't happen because we were too incompetent to make it happen," he says, "that would be something."
NPR producer Samuel Alwyine-Mosely contributed to this report.
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