Comment: Germany knows we’re open for post-Brexit business

The first Scottish-German ­Business Exchange Conference (SGBEC) was attended by high-profile business executives, civil servants and politicians, and laid the foundations for a closer business relationship between the two countries regardless of what type of Brexit the UK ultimately faces.

In Scotland an estimated 18,000 people are employed by 155 German firms, says Smith. Picture: contributed.

Hosted in Pinsent Masons’ Edinburgh office, SGBEC is a new forum initiated by the British Chamber of Commerce in ­Germany, Europe’s largest foreign ­chamber, and was established to enhance dialogue between Scottish and German businesses after Brexit.

In Scotland, an estimated 18,000 ­people are employed by 155 German ­companies, and with annual exports of goods of around £2 billion, Germany is our fourth-largest export market. The country is also one of the biggest foreign investors in ­Scotland, putting in an estimated £8bn over the last decade.

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Jens-Peter Voss, consul general from the German Consulate in Edinburgh, attended the conference in which the keynote speech was delivered by David McAllister, a member of the European Parliament for Germany, former Minister-President of Lower Saxony and chair of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee.

The son of a Scottish father and ­German mother, McAllister made clear the ­overall sentiment of the European Parliament was that it did not want the UK to leave, emphasised the many commonalities between Scotland and Germany, and stressed the importance of forums such as SGBEC to underpin future relations.

Representatives from the Scottish ­Government and UK government in ­Scotland discussed the UK economic ­outlook, touching on Scotland’s need for more migration, and highlighting how our economy is at risk of stagnation if we limit the number of foreign nationals.

In a technical presentation, Simon Sutcliffe, a partner in accountancy firm Blick Rothenberg, looked at movement of people post-Brexit, suggesting that there are a work-arounds and systems in place, and if businesses know where they are and how to use them to their benefit, this could ­minimise the impact of a hard Brexit.

Graeme Littlejohn, director of strategy at the Scotch Whisky Association, ­discussed how the UK’s food and drink industry would likely fare once we leave Europe, while Ralph Saelzer, MD of German-owned crane manufacturers Liebherr-Sunderland Works, outlined issues facing the UK’s manufacturing industry. It was interesting to hear Saelzer explain how German companies are traditionally more likely to take a long-term view regarding economic prospects, to determine the future strategy of a business, rather than make knee-jerk decisions based on ­current and arguably more volatile trading conditions. This should benefit the Sunderland works and the business has already made changes in their supply chain.

From my perspective, as an immigration law specialist, I outlined that in the short to medium term there are measures that will allow businesses to continue to employ EU citizens. The serious challenges lie in the long term, where it will be difficult to maintain that status quo, and firms will be operating in an environment with greater uncertainty, higher costs, a larger administrative burden and will have a reduced labour pool.

The conference was a most welcome ­initiative by German businesses to reach out to Scottish counterparts and our politicians, and to establish mutual relationships and connections that will continue to develop, whether Brexit happens or not. A number of speakers emphasised that German business was particularly impressed when First ­Minister Nicola Sturgeon led a Scottish Development International trade delegation to ­Berlin. The Germans evidently feel that Scotland is making a concentrated effort to maintain relations as best we can.

Euan Smith, partner and corporate immigration specialist at law firm Pinsent Masons.