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Dominic Raab: UK AI sector will get boost from EU exit ‘done right’

Brexit secretary tells Tech Nation audience that leaving the EU could create opportunities for the UK technology sector

Dominic Raab, secretary of state for exiting the European Union, told an audience of technology business people last night that the UK artificial intelligence (AI) sector will be boosted by Brexit “done right”.

Raab, who is in the thick of what the government hopes will be final-stage negotiations with the European Union (EU), spoke to an audience gathered in Islington by Tech Nation, a part-government-funded agency whose role is to advocate for technology entrepreneurs. There were about 80 tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and technology industry professionals in the audience.

Raab was prominent on the Leave side of the EU referendum held in the UK in June 2016 and is a spokesperson for a “global Britain”, a neo-liberal, internationalist version of Brexit. He has served as secretary of state for exiting the EU since the resignation of the original Brexit minister, David Davis, over his disagreement with prime minister Theresa May’s “Chequers plan” for a Brexit featuring a customs arrangement for goods, but not services.

Government ministers – notably chancellor Philip Hammond – have made much, against the background of Brexit, of the comparative advantage the UK could be said to have in the field of AI. It is often said, for instance, that in the form of Google DeepMind, UK university-based computer science has created the world’s leading AI company.

The implication is that such pre-eminence will mitigate potential economic damage from Brexit. However, Raab seemed to contend that the UK’s nascent AI sector could positively benefit from leaving the EU.

“If you get it right [it will benefit],” he said. “There are all sorts of risks with Brexit. I’m not saying there are no issues or challenges to be mitigated. But if we maintain data flows and the integrity of those, smart regulation at home, within [EU] equivalence regulatory approaches, while we forge strong relations with growth markets around the world, in Latin America and Asia, then there is great scope.

“How well the AI sector does is really predicated by what we do at home – businesses investing more, government-promoted R&D, and making sure the infrastructure is supported around tech and AI hubs, with communications and housing.

“Brexit may create opportunities, but we need to stand on our own two feet. And we have advantages in terms of flexible labour markets, innovation, the soft power of our world-class universities – these will drive our success in the AI area for years to come.”

“Brexit may create opportunities, but we need to stand on our own two feet”

Dominic Raab

Audience members expressed concern about access to talent being diminished by Brexit, with the ending of free movement of workers across Europe. Raab presented what he admitted to be an under-amplified, pro-immigration aspect of the Brexit case he has stood for. He said he wanted to address the question of access to talent and immigration policy.

“I supported Brexit and am proud to be the Brexit secretary because I want to deliver a global, outgoing Britain,” he said. “I appreciate that is not a message that doesn’t get delivered often or powerfully enough. We have agreed to protect the rights of EU nationals here in the UK and UK ex-pats working on the continent. And we have made it very clear that in the unlikely event of a no deal, then we will protect those rights anyway.”

Raab said that as regards future immigration policy, the government will soon publish a whitepaper based on Migration Advisory Council (MAC) “evidence-based principles” that will be global in scope and based on skills required for the UK economy. “There is something to be said for moving from an immigration system that is overly focused on freedom of movement within the EU to one that looks to a global talent pool,” he said.

He said the MAC’s view that the cap on high-skill immigration to the UK should be removed would be closely considered, and that encouragement of young, tech-savvy workers to move to the UK would also be looked at in the whitepaper.

Raab had begun his talk by saying technology entrepreneurialism was a “massive draw” for investment into the UK. “In 2017, UK tech companies attracted over £6bn in venture capital,” he said. “That’s more than France, Germany and Sweden combined. London has one-fifth of Europe’s unicorns [tech startups with a valuation of $1bn or more], well ahead of second-place Berlin, and valued at £132bn, compared to £33bn in Berlin.”

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Raab said the “divorce” side of leaving the EU was important but did not fire him up as much as the potential of a future relationship with the bloc. “We are leaving the EU, but not leaving Europe,” he said and referenced his own background as the son of a Czech refugee from Nazism.

“We are pretty much close to a withdrawal agreement, with the exception of the Northern Ireland protocol,” he added.

In terms of the future economic relationship between the UK and the EU, Raab reiterated the tenets of the “Chequers” whitepaper agreed by the Cabinet and published in July. “We want a bespoke arrangement on goods that recognises the peculiar economic and geographic entity that is the United Kingdom,” he said. “If you look at how the UK trades in goods, we are super-reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.

“It is not a question of the risk of major shortages, it is more a question of one or two specific trade routes, and so there we need frictionless trade at the border, so we are willing to sign up to some EU rules there.

“When it comes to services and particularly tech, it is a different set of considerations. The EU anyway is not particularly well developed in terms of a single market for services. We want as much domestic flexibility as possible here. And we want as much room for manoeuvre to negotiate our own trade deals as energetically as possible.

“So, we want to collaborate with our EU partners, and data protection is important to that. We also want to have autonomy to supply smart regulation to all of you. 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 [globally].

“So we want to liberalise trade [there] and one of the things that facilitates that is the free flow of data, from providers of cloud computing to the builders and designers of cars who are using commercial data, as well as all business to improve their customer offer and improve their business processes.”

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