Forget Parliament and get ready for the real challenge to arise after Brexit

If you are a British farmer waiting to sell your next harvest of hops to a Belgian brewery; an entrepreneur sitting on an unsigned contract bringing on board continental investors; or a student contemplating a traineeship in a German engineering company – you have been dealt another blow by Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons. Once more Members of Parliament said No to the deal negotiated between the UK government and the EU about Britain’s orderly withdrawal. This will most likely be followed by a No today, Wednesday, on the option of leaving the EU without any deal and a – then necessary – No on Thursday to the statutory departure date of 29 March. It will thus be abundantly clear what Britain’s elected representatives do NOT want – but we’ll still be in the dark about what they would support instead.

Business leaders will be tearing out their last hair in desperation. Predictability – one of the most important foundations of any trade – is in awfully short supply. But hang on a moment – we’ll tell you something you can be very sure about.

Whether you export your products, depend on foreign investment or wish to offer your skills abroad, Europe will still be the UK’s most important trading partner.

Forget Westminster and its irresponsible manoeuvring for one moment. Raise your eyes and look ahead to what will happen once this charade is over: regardless of what form Brexit takes, of whether the UK leaves without a deal or the day of reckoning is avoided (or rather postoponed) by virtue of a lengthy transition period – in any circumstance, both the UK and the EU will want to hammer out a post-Brexit agreement. Never mind how it will be called, the fact is the two have every incentive to seek a deal acknowledging that Britain, relative to the EU, is in a very different place to Azerbaijan or Zimbabwe. And they’ll want to get on with it soon.

This is what business leaders should focus on. Whether you export your products, depend on foreign investment or wish to offer your skills abroad, Europe will still be the UK’s most important trading partner. Time to get out your market analysis, do your calculations and resolve what you want once EU membership has ended for good.

Full regulatory convergence and thus unimpeded access to the EU’s single market? That’s a clear stance. However, what’s the fallback in case that wasn’t achievable? Equivalences? Preferential access? Or mere tariff quotas? Your position – not only towards your EU partners or rivals but also those in other countries – will be deeply impacted by the terms of that future agreement – the second-most important treaty the UK will ever be negotiating after its decision to join the European Community back in 1973.

Preparing for Brexit is yesterday’s tune. What you now need to prepare for is the battle about Britain’s future economic relationship with the EU.

You’ll need to be out of the starting blocks early, precisely because it will be so important to virtually everybody. The UK will not be able to advance or defend every interest. Various stakeholders are bound to clash, some sectors will be deemed more strategic than others. The same will be true on the EU side of the table. With the added complication that any agreement will have to be ratified not just by the EU as such but by all its Member States – and in some instances even regional assemblies. There is plenty of potential for rows, trade-offs and blackmail. A well-argued case, the right support at the right time, and good intelligence will all be crucial to coming out on the winning side.

Preparing for Brexit is yesterday’s tune. What you now need to prepare for is the battle about Britain’s future economic relationship with the EU. It is a battle we stand ready to fight by your side.