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Post-Brexit trade: business leaders tell May time is running out

Leading European industrialists, including bosses from BP, Nestlé, E.ON and Royal Mail, have warned Theresa May that time is running out and said businesses want post-Brexit trade with the EU to be as frictionless as with a customs union.

At a private meeting in Downing Street with the prime minister and the Brexit secretary, David Davis, senior business figures from the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) warned that “uncertainty causes less investment”.

May has only committed to ensuring “trade at the UK-EU border should be as frictionless as possible”, a phrase repeated by a Downing Street spokesman after the meeting.

In a joint statement, the business leaders said they had expressed their concerns to May and warned there was an urgent need for clarity.

“The uninterrupted flow of goods is essential to both the EU and UK economies,” the statement said. “This must be frictionless as with a customs union. We need clarity and certainty, because time is running out. Uncertainty causes less investment.”

No 10 said the meeting had been an “open and productive discussion” and dialogue would continue. A spokesman said May “underlined the importance of ensuring that our future trading arrangements with the EU are as frictionless as possible”, adding that the future economic partnership would go “beyond existing models”.

The meeting was attended by senior members of British and other European businesses, including Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of BP, Vittorio Colao, Vodafone’s outgoing chief executive, Paul Bulcke, chairman of Nestlé, and Moya Greene, the outgoing chief executive of Royal Mail.

Others attended from firms including BMW, the aluminium company Norsk Hydro, the French multinational Capgemini and the energy company Iberdrola, which owns ScottishPower. More than 50 firms are members of the ERT, with combined revenues of more than £1.97tn and 6.8 million employees in Europe.

Downing Street said May “recognised the necessity of providing certainty for businesses”, pointing to the agreement of a transition period at the European council in March. May and Davis also discussed the future of regulatory standards, after a presentation by the Brexit secretary on the progress of the talks.

May appeared to win some backing for her bid for a bespoke deal on data-sharing laws after Brexit. Downing Street said there was “consensus” in the room that a robust agreement on data-sharing was “vital to our future economic and security relationship with the EU”.

In a presentation to the EU negotiating team last week, UK officials asked for the Information Commissioner’s Office to have a seat on the body that applies data laws to companies, with preferential treatment over other non-EU countries after Brexit.

But the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said in a speech that such privileged access was impossible and would impact on the EU’s ability to make its own decisions.

“We cannot, we will not be able to share this decisional autonomy with a third country, undoubtedly a former member state but which no longer wants to be in the same legal ecosystem as us,” he said.

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