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EU more vital than US, say UK businesses calling for more Brexit clarity

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matt Dunham   -   Matt Dunham
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British business leaders are urging the government to publish its Brexit negotiating objectives to alleviate uncertainty, stressing that reaching a free trade agreement with the European Union is more important than striking deals with other countries.

In a survey released on Tuesday, the Institute of Directors (IoD) found that a majority (55%) of business directors are withholding from making planning or investment decisions until they have clarity over what the future relationship with the EU is like.

"The withdrawal agreement provides clarity for the next 12 months and no further — enough for some organisations but not for those trying to take long-term decisions," Allie Renison, head of Europe and trade policy at the IoD, said in a statement.

"To give businesses any chance of being ready for the new relationship by the end of 2020, the Government needs to be clear as possible about what its intended destination is.

"With directors clear that negotiations with the EU are the priority right now, clarity is crucial for so many companies. Just calling it a free trade agreement gives no indication of the balance between alignment and divergence, which is essential for firms to do any kind of advance planning," she added.

British MPs gave their final approval for the Withdrawal Agreement earlier this month, less than a month after Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured a significant majority in Parliament

The country is now scheduled to officially exit the European Union on January 31 with Johnson emphasising that the transition period will not be extended until 2021, giving just 11 months for a trade agreement to be drawn up.

EU before US

EU leaders including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier have both signalled that the timeframe is too narrow for a comprehensive deal to be struck and have instead argued that priorities should be given to certain sectors including climate change, fisheries, data protection, energy and security.

Both also warned that compromises would have to be made, warning that the EU would not agree to anything that might endanger its single market and customs union and calling for a level-playing field on taxation, labour and state aid.

The issue is particularly important for the 952 British business leaders the IoD surveyed as the vast majority — 61% — said negotiations on the UK's post-Brexit trade and economic relationship with the EU are more important that negotiations with any other country including the US. Only 20% said other countries should be the priority.

The survey was released a day after Johnson hosted a summit with representatives of 21 African nations in which he called for a "new start in our business partnership", describing the UK as "the obvious partner of choice" and the "ultimate one-stop shop for the ambitious, growing international economy".

He also promised changes to the immigration system which he said would enable the UK "to attract the best talent from around the world, wherever they may be".