Mark Essex discusses why public engagement strategy needs to include governments on both sides of the channel.
We’re in for a bumpy ride. The schedule for 2017 includes the invoking of Article 50 against a backdrop of European elections. But business has an important role to play in smoothing the waters. In particular, their public engagement strategy needs to include governments on both sides of the channel.
One month in and 2017 continues to proceed as expected, as the government loses its appeal to the Supreme Court over the right to trigger Article 50. The pace is picking up. And I sense a change of mood in my conversations with clients now. Most seem to have passed the denial stage of the grieving process, and moved toward acceptance: Brexit really does mean Brexit.
I also sense relief that a coherent set of Brexit objectives has been established. But rather than reducing overall uncertainty, the question has moved from “hard or soft?” to “Will red, white and blue Brexit be acceptable to the EU?” And if so, can it be done in time? It’s clear that the ball is in the EU’s court.
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We know many senior officials feel a deep sense of loss, a rejection even, at the result of the UK referendum. Has enough time passed to start talking about win-win negotiations? Or are our European neighbours still angry enough to punish Britain? The best way to find out is to apply the tried and tested approach that businesses use with their own customers every day.
After all, any salesperson will have heard of the FBI approach to selling: Features, Benefits, Incentives. In other words, to persuade a consumer to pay a premium for a product, the features must be explained in a way that matters to the customer. People don’t buy the feature of having a seatbelt in a car. They buy the benefit of not being thrown out of the vehicle in a crash. The incentive to buy that benefit is to reduce the chances of serious injury.
So now let’s apply that thinking to addressing European doubts about Theresa May’s vision. Simply demanding flexibility on frictionless trade because it improves British business’ bottom line may not be the best approach. Instead we should step in the shoes of European businesses, politicians and populations. They need a reason to support a proposal and to ask their own governments to back it. That means highlighting examples of where European firms would benefit from such arrangements, showing how transaction costs will ramp up if borders become slower.
Take the whole trend for fast fashion and next day fulfilment. A European customer can order a dress from a British website today, to wear tomorrow. That’s only possible because we have frictionless borders as a result of the Customs Union. Put a hard border in and customs might take 72 hours. Would retailers hold more stock across the channel, or try and turn back the clock and persuade consumers that waiting four days is acceptable again? Framing issues in this way will have more impact than talking about GDP or bottom lines.
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It's not EU, it's we
What would be one big step forward? Take the same amount of care with those we seek to persuade, as we do with our customers. That means saying “we” to emphasize the common interests of British and European businesses, neither of whom benefit from a disorderly Brexit. Let’s also recognise that this is not just an economic decision, in which one would set out the costs and benefits to each country’s growth score. The constituencies who hold the EU’s leaders to account are not all economically active, not all familiar with business jargon and are not all gripped by the twists and turns of Brexit.
We know that sometimes important nuances can be lost in translation. What better way to signal that the UK is keen to open a dialogue with an EU audience than to (literally) speak their language. As I suggested in this column back in October, it is about time more of us in global Britain become polyglots. N’est-ce pas?
This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK. You can register for the email subscription list of this column and expert views from our Brexit leaders.