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Urgent progress needed in Brexit talks or UK jobs will be lost, PM warned

Lobbying group BusinessEurope said it was crucial for progress to be made within two weeks.

European business leaders warned Theresa May that jobs and investment in the UK could be lost unless urgent progress is made in the Brexit talks.

The Prime Minister was told that businesses are “extremely concerned” at the slow pace of negotiations with Brussels and it was vital that trade talks were given the green light in December’s summit of EU leaders.

Mrs May was also urged to keep the UK within the customs union and single market in a transitional arrangement after the formal split from Brussels in March 2019 – and to secure agreement on that by Christmas.

The Prime Minister told the gathering of business leaders from across the EU that she wanted to agree an implementation period “as soon as possible”.

Emma Marcegaglia, president of the lobbying group BusinessEurope, said: “Business is extremely concerned with the slow pace of negotiations and the lack of progress only one month before the decisive December European Council.”

After the meeting in Downing Street she told reporters: “We don’t want uncertainty, we are very concerned.

“We know that if companies don’t see certainty probably they will have a contingency plan and probably they will leave the UK, or they will invest less. So, these two weeks are extremely important.”

Ms Marcegaglia said both the UK and Brussels had to work to secure a deal.

“My view is that they both have to work more,” she said, but because it was the UK’s decision to leave, it was for Mrs May to put a “real, concrete proposal” on the table.

BusinessEurope president Emma Marcegagia and CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn leaving 10 Downing Street (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) as well as organisations from Germany, France and other European Union nations were present at the talks with Mrs May, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Brexit Secretary David Davis.

CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn said firms are “beginning to press the button” to implement contingency plans in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, she said, but progress in the negotiations could result in a “win-win” situation.

“The overall impact, undoubtedly, of the ongoing uncertainty is fewer jobs, less investment, less economic prosperity across Europe,” she said.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier indicated on Friday that progress was needed within two weeks on so-called divorce issues – including the financial settlement – for the bloc’s leaders to consider moving on to the next stage of negotiations, which would look at a trade deal and transitional arrangements.

A Downing Street spokesman said that at the meeting the Prime Minister “reiterated her ambition for free and frictionless trade with the EU27 once the UK departs”.

“She also expressed her commitment to giving businesses the certainty they need by agreeing a time-limited implementation period as soon as possible.”

Mr Davis told the group there was an “important role” for business leaders to play and “underlined that economic considerations should be to the fore in the negotiations”.

The meeting came as Mrs May was preparing for a parliamentary battle as the Government’s Brexit legislation returns to the Commons on Tuesday.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said leaving the EU without a deal could bring down the Government and appealed to Tory rebels to back efforts to water down one of Mrs May’s negotiating red lines.

Sir Keir told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “No deal is a very, very bad outcome.

“Taken literally, it means we have not agreed anything, and that means we haven’t agreed anything about EU citizens, we haven’t agreed anything about the border in Northern Ireland, we haven’t agreed anything on security. I think that sort of no deal is unthinkable.

“In those circumstances I think the Government would have to seriously consider whether it could continue.”

As the EU (Withdrawal) Bill goes into committee stage, Sir Keir said he hoped for support from Tory rebels for a Labour amendment allowing the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to maintain its role during a transition period.

Sir Keir said a future relationship with the ECJ after transition would be a “matter for negotiation”.

Meanwhile, a Government amendment to the Bill formally ending Britain’s membership of the EU at 11pm GMT on March 29 2019 was strongly condemned by Conservative former attorney general and prominent Remain campaigner Dominic Grieve.

“I think it is an incoherent and thoroughly stupid amendment and it won’t have my support,” he told Sky News.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said imposing an “arbitrary and potentially damaging” exit date was a “stitch-up which would deny Parliament’s right to a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal”.

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