I (still) don't know what Brexit means

Nov 02, 2018

By Eamon Murphy

Another Brexit deadline has come and gone. The recent EU summit should have been about assembling enough of the Brexit jigsaw pieces to present a recognisable picture of the future of Europe. The stage was perfectly set for another one of those hard nights of negotiation after which all sides would emerge bleary-eyed into the morning – claiming victory and vindication. Everybody knew it wasn’t going to be the finished article but it should have been enough to allow for entry into the transition phase – provided nobody looked too closely for the missing pieces.

However, we currently remain some way away from an agreement. Theresa May is in a near-impossible situation, hemmed in everywhere she turns – to her right, by her party’s hard brexiteers; to her left, by the elusive Labour party and the DUP. In Europe, she is confronted by a determined set of EU leaders who have heeded Benjamin Franklin’s advice: better hang together rather than be hanged separately. 

So, more than two years after the Brexit vote and only a few months from the scheduled departure, Brexit remains an enigma. At its best, it could mean a benign, business-friendly free trade area with reciprocal regulations. At its worst, it could descend into a nasty, vindictive shambles of hard borders and customs posts. The centenary of the end of the First World War will happen in a few days. We would do well to remember that the EU – for all its bulky bureaucracy – has provided its citizenry with a safer, more prosperous existence than the slaughter in nearby Flanders fields one hundred years earlier.  

Unfortunately, the true meaning of Brexit has yet to be revealed. Depending on your perspective in the UK or EU, Brexit can mean a few conflicting things:  

  • The democratic will of the people or a second referendum. 
  • A steadfast union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or quasi-new Irish free state.
  • Something to be celebrated or something to be punished.
  • Losing a comfort blanket or escaping a straitjacket

Theresa May wasn’t too far out with her early assertion that Brexit means Brexit. Its meaning is elusive and polarising. ‘Brexit’ has, perhaps, become a contronym – a word that has acquired different and opposite definitions. 

At this late stage in the Brexit negotiations, words are our best chance of progress. We must hope that both sides can prepare a comforting stew of words from which everybody can find something palatable. This would allow entry into the next phase of transition and give both sides the time and space to negotiate a long-term, mutually-beneficial solution. There remains the intriguing possibility of a second referendum but it is by no means certain that such a referendum would yield a different outcome. 

I still don’t know what Brexit means. Nor do many other people, but many Irish companies have already made plans for Brexit. We do know that the Brexit winners will be those companies who can secure alternative non-UK markets and suppliers, embrace innovation at all levels in business, see opportunity in the chaos and who develop excellent strategic finance and foreign exchange capabilities (which is good news for members). For those not yet started – it’s not too late. Avail of some free help and advice from the agencies and get going (even if we’re all doing so blindly). 

Eamon Murphy FCA is a member in business.