Brexit will be a huge challenge for London – but our best days still lie ahead

Lloyd Dorfman
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” (Source: Getty)

Today London mayor Sadiq Khan visits Paris on his shortened tour through continental Europe, just a day before the government invokes Article 50. As the mayor passes through the French capital, it will send an important and timely signal that London remains committed to openness, engagement and internationalism.

London has a glorious past, a dynamic present and an exciting future. As an entrepreneur with a glass-half-full outlook, I think that the capital's best days could even be ahead of it. As Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Following the mantra of “Brexit means Brexit”, Theresa May clarified in January that the UK should leave the Single Market. In the past, I supported the Remain campaign and argued for the benefits of the Single Market. There were clear economic advantages to Britain’s membership, which I had experienced as I built up my business Travelex. The EU’s Single Market played an important role in helping grow the firm from one small shop in London in 1976 into a global business. Yet the Brexit vote means we cannot have a continuation of the status quo, particularly with regard to freedom of movement. We have to move on.

Read more: Britain risks enormous trade disruption without Customs Union pragmatism

At the same time, assuming we formally leave the Single Market, we need to try to negotiate the strongest possible trade links. As the Brexit process unfolds, the business voice in London must be articulated.

With only 12.5 per cent of the UK population, the capital accounts for an amazing 22 per cent of the UK’s GDP, and can proudly claim to be the fifth largest city economy in the world. London must maintain its status as the best place in the world for business and tourism, and from my vantage point as an entrepreneur who has built a global business, here are some key desired outcomes from the negotiations.

First, for a whole host of reasons, London is and should remain a vibrant place for entrepreneurship. It is no surprise that of 650,000 new businesses founded in the UK last year, over 200,000 were started in London. Overall, London has around 800,000 businesses ranging from large corporates to SMEs. It must remain a welcoming place for entrepreneurs to build and grow a company.

Second, London’s status as a financial centre should be protected as far as possible. The sector is a massive boon for the economy, paying £65bn in tax and enabling over 2m jobs throughout the country (together with related professional services). While there will likely be some change, our world-class sector should be preserved and supported.

Read more: How the City can remain the jewel in London’s crown post-Brexit

Third, London must remain an attractive place to visit, enhanced by our world-class arts, culture and heritage. In a single year, over 17m visitors come to London, spending £12bn. Notwithstanding last week’s appalling terrorist attack in Westminster, we must continue to welcome tourists and visitors to London. Relations between countries are built from the bottom up through ties between their respective populations.

Fourth, London’s strength is the internationalism of its people, ideas and capital. Its population of 8.6m includes people of more than 270 nationalities, speaking 300 languages. Three million of them were not born in the UK. It is also the case that organisations like the NHS and a number of businesses are helped enormously by EU labour. At present, 12 per cent of London’s workforce comes from other EU countries. Assuming this will drop in the future because free movement will be restricted, we need to find a solution to this conundrum.

Read more: Brexiteers and Remainers are agreeing on their Brexit goals

For hundreds of years, the UK and London have punched above their weight in trade and enterprise. The vote to leave the EU is a significant challenge but I am of the view that big change can be galvanising and create big opportunity. Having done business all over the world, I also believe that the relationship is two-way, and Europe needs London as much as the other way round.

We should be approaching these negotiations in a constructive way to get the best possible deal. To counter the perception of Brexit as a retreat from the international stage, we need to extend the hand of friendship all the more. We should welcome the mayor’s trip as a timely reminder of the importance of maintaining good economic, diplomatic and cultural ties to the rest of Europe, especially in the post-Brexit era.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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