Brexit and tech – the big ‘if’

As we, seemingly, edge closer to something resembling a UK deal for leaving the European Union (and by the time you read this, that statement could quite possibly have been superseded by events), so the government is starting to reach out to the tech sector to ease its ongoing concerns.

This week, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab came along to meet a room-full of tech leaders and journalists in London, to answer their questions and put forward his case for Brexit.

It was on this occasion that Raab exposed himself to widespread mockery – far beyond his tech audience – for admitting that he had not fully understood the importance of the Dover to Calais crossing for UK trade. Cue facepalms all round.

But did he reassure the gathered leaders that Brexit is not the disaster that most of the industry fears it will be? Whether you feel he achieved that objective depends mostly on how much work you are willing to allow the word “if” to undertake on his behalf.

When asked about the prospects for the UK’s artificial intelligence (AI) sector – in which the UK likes to see itself as something of a pioneer and where there is undoubted future opportunity – Raab said all will be well, “if you get it right”.

That’s an answer that seems to sum up most of his pitch. Be reassured, leaders of a critically important UK industry, everything will be fine, if you get it right.

That poor ‘if’ is left to support all the justified concerns about data flows, regulatory compliance, lack of a deal for services, losing the customs union, exiting the digital single market, ending free movement of talent from the EU, attracting foreign investment – add your own weights to the straining bar that ‘if’ is holding.

“Brexit may create opportunities,” Raab continued – note, “may” not “will”, and this from one of the most ideologically committed Brexiteers.

“I want to deliver a global, outgoing Britain,” he said, to an audience of outgoing, globalist tech leaders, no doubt somewhat surprised to learn they were not already outgoing and global.

He repeated the government line that losing EU freedom of movement will not hinder the industry, because we’ll have a global immigration system instead. We do, of course, already have a global immigration system in the UK, which fails to attract enough overseas talent, and fails thus solely because of self-imposed restrictions.

“Most of the growth markets in the future will be in the non-EU markets, whether Latin America or Asia, and so, for instance we want to be able to promote e-commerce,” said Raab. It might be a surprise to UK e-commerce firms that apparently they don’t have the ability to target non-EU growth markets or promote their services therein. Pretty sure they do that now.

Computer Weekly has long held the view that Brexit is bad for tech. Should Raab’s positivity prove correct – if “if” steps up and carries all that weight – even then we’re still to be convinced the growth opportunities will be better than they would be within the EU. If we’re wrong, we’ll stand up and say so. But our “if” is a lot smaller than Raab’s.

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