How business lost the Brexit battle

Nicole Sykes is director of external affairs at Pro Bono Economics and the former head of negotiations at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

July 2016. The captains of British industry have congregated in a glass-walled City conference room. The meeting is so oversubscribed that FTSE chairmen huddle by the complimentary brownies and turf out the note-takers in the observer chairs ringing the room. It’s a bruised company.

Overwhelmingly pro-European, many sit at the helm of international business, focused on the market of 500 million people the U.K. has long been a part of. There are German voices among the chatter, Italian, Irish and the odd, bemused, American. They employ millions of people between them and generate billions in tax revenue for the government. Just a week before, the U.K. voted to leave the EU. For most, it is a personal as well as a financial loss.

Yet the tone isn’t one of recrimination or even regret. Far from inhabiting the “gloomster” mindset they will one day be accused of, the universal attitude is determined. The British people have decided. We have to make this work the best we can. Adapt. Make a success of it.

The sentiment echoes round both the top table and the cheap seats. In the first weeks following the referendum, these and hundreds of other businesses would coalesce around five priorities for the new U.K.-EU relationship. First, retaining the ease of U.K.-EU trade that the single market provided. Second, balancing regulatory equivalence with the EU, with flexibility and influence over the domestic environment. Third, a migration system that would see firms able to continue to access the skills they need while recognizing public concerns. Fourth, protection for the economic and social benefits of EU-funded projects.

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