LONDON - British banking giant Barclays has drawn up plans to shift more than $200 billion worth of assets from London to Dublin amid mounting business alarm that Britain is more likely now to leave the European Union without an exit deal.
With Prime Minister Theresa May’s ruling Conservative government now backing away from a contentious withdrawal agreement negotiated in November and locked in a standoff with Brussels, Britain is heading for a scheduled March 29 departure without any kind of negotiated exit agreement. That means tariffs would have to be imposed on goods moving back and forth across the English Channel. It would also block market access to the EU for banks based in Britain.
British and international firms with European headquarters in London have become increasingly angry with the Brexit crisis. Earlier in January, in at times a testy conference call, 331 business leaders, including from U.S. banking giants and major companies like Amazon and Apple, were assured by senior government ministers that a no-deal exit would be taken off the table and that Britain wouldn’t part company with its largest trading bloc until a deal had been struck.
Since then, though, there has been no resolution to the major differences between Britain and the other 27 EU member states - if anything, frustrations have deepened with EU officials maintaining Monday that they are not prepared to reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, which a deeply divided British House of Commons refused to endorse in January.
The transfer by Barclays of assets belonging to 5,000 clients emerged Monday, when the bank won the court approval required. The judge, Richard Snowden, noted that the transfer was “huge” as it represents nearly a quarter of the assets Barclays holds. “The design of the scheme has been based upon an assumption that there will be no favorable outcome of the current political negotiations between the UK and the EU,” he said.
The bank said in a statement, “Barclays will use our existing licensed EU-based bank subsidiary to continue to serve our clients within the EU beyond 29 March 2019, regardless of the outcome of Brexit. Our preparations are well-advanced and we expect to be fully operational by 29 March 2019.”
Without a deal, British banks and international financial service institutions based in London would have no access to the EU market. Some market analysts estimate that London will lose at least a trillion dollars, and possibly much more, to financial rivals in Europe, including Frankfurt, Dublin and Paris by the end of March as banks flee ahead of Brexit.
At least 30 banks and financial firms are planning to move their EU headquarters to Germany. Other banks are set to spread their operations across different European cities. At least 10,000 banking jobs are likely to move to Frankfurt, Germany’s fifth biggest city, over the next eight years, industry observers say. Paris is angling for business, too, offering tax incentives for banks to relocate to the French capital, a determined rival to London.
Lloyds, Standard Chartered and Credit Suisse are among the banks that are planning to open offices in Frankfurt because of Brexit. While mainstream banks voice their frustration, hedge funds, many of which donated to anti-EU campaigns during the 2016 Brexit referendum, welcome a no-deal departure, hoping it will open the way for the dismantling of a swathe of regulations on financial services.
Aside from banks, other British businesses are becoming increasingly alarmed at what they might face in the event of a no-deal Brexit. On Monday, British officials acknowledged that businesses will face higher trade tariffs and barriers in dozens of countries because there’s not enough time between now and March 29 to replicate 40 EU trade deals with non-EU countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Leading British Brexiters, including International Trade Minister Liam Fox, have been saying for months that trade deal replications would be easy. Fox once vowed that the agreements would be all complete “one second after midnight” on Brexit day.
On Monday, a British official acknowledged to a parliamentary panel that will not be the case and that hundreds of British firms will lose preferential access, reducing the price competitiveness of their goods. The official declined to provide an “absolute figure” on how many trade deals would lapse because of technical, legal or political problems.
As business fears mount, Prime Minister May has announced a change in her negotiating team with her de facto deputy, David Lidington, a former long-serving Europe minister, taking the lead position in British efforts to persuade Brussels to open up the withdrawal agreement, itself the product of ill-tempered haggling between the EU and London.
But EU leaders have firmly shut the door, so far, to amending or changing the agreement, which would see Britain locked in a customs union with the bloc for several years while it negotiates a vaguely defined free trade settlement.
In the temporary customs union, Britain would be unable to influence EU laws, regulations and product standards it would have to observe. The transition was reached to avoid customs checks on the border separating Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but British lawmakers fear Britain could be trapped indefinitely in the transition.
Leading Brexiters say if May can get a sunset clause written into the deal to allow Britain to escape the transition agreement, if it wished later, or if the transition were time limited, they might reverse their opposition and back the deal. But that still might not give May the majority she needs to secure parliamentary approval.
The leaders of the 27 other EU member states made clear Monday that they are not prepared to revisit the deal. “A renegotiation is not on the table,” said Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar. “There’s no plan to discuss any changes. The withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and is not going to be reopened,” he added. Both the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, echoed the Irish leader.