Irish firms ‘have no plan’ for Brexit as UK return ruled out

As much as 98% of companies on the island of Ireland currently have no plan in place to cope with the consequences of Brexit, a new report shows.

This is despite noises from Europe over the weekend strongly suggesting Britain will have no route back into the EU once it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty next month.

The latest quarterly business monitor from cross-border business development agency InterTrade Ireland shows that while a healthy 84% of firms north and south are reporting stability or growth in their business, a staggering 98% claim to have no plan to deal with the after-effects of the UK leaving the EU.

Furthermore, 51% of businesses active in cross-border sales are concerned about currency fluctuations and exchange rates and more than a quarter of those surveyed indicated they are finding it difficult to source appropriately-skilled workers.

While — in the immediate aftermath of last June’s UK referendum on EU membership — stunned European leaders insisted Britons were welcome to change their minds, the mood across the rest of the bloc has shifted away. While officially the door remains open to Britain to stay, many on the continent would not welcome a U-turn now.

“This bus has left,” said one senior EU diplomat. “No one is happy about it. But we have moved on and the last thing anyone wants now is to reopen the whole issue.”

With close-fought elections in core EU members France and Germany this year and upstart populist movements shaking up politics across the region, few would want to predict with any confidence the final outcome of the Brexit process.

That view is shared by diplomats from a range of the other EU27 states, and by some EU officials: “It’s going to happen,” one of the latter said. “It’s bureaucratically embedded.”

Even among allies with most to lose from Brexit, there is little talk of a reprieve: “We have to accept the decision that Brexit will happen,” Irish Europe Minister Dara Murphy told a Dublin forum where many voiced fears for Ireland’s economy.

From the European Commission, the Brussels executive whose Michel Barnier will negotiate Brexit for the Union, some also detect a harder tone, warning against those in Britain who want to pull back from a “hard Brexit”, or the clean break with the EU market that Theresa May spelled out last month.

“‘I’m a bit in, I’m a bit out, maybe tomorrow I’ll be back’ ... this isn’t on,” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker chided last week. “You’re either in, or you’re out.”

“The mood in Brussels ... has hardened really over the last few weeks,” said Giles Merritt, chairman of Brussels think-tank Friends of Europe.

Germany, France and other big powers worry that being soft on London could lead to a further unravelling of the EU. Even if Ms. May were to seek a “soft Brexit” - under which it would notably retain full access to the EU’s single market in return for accepting its rules - many have lost patience with a Britain that has long secured special favours.

“Tempers are now so frayed, it would require a huge volte face from Downing Street for them to be able to accept that without a massive loss of face,” said Mr. Merritt.

Once Ms . May formally notifies the EU next month of Britain’s intent to withdraw under Article 50 of the EU treaty, turning back would run into a political and legal minefield.

Lawyers for the British government have said that, once started, the process is irrevocable, but some EU leaders say Britain can change its mind and a legal challenge to determine whether it can be reversed has been filed with the Irish courts.

“People can take cases to court. My understanding is it is irrevocable and when we press the button that will go forward,” UK Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss told the BBC yesterday.

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