For several hours on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May, despite looming threats of a no-confidence vote, cajoled her cabinet into backing a draft Brexit deal. The separation agreement now faces approval by the European Commission as part of the process established by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Ultimately, May said, there was a “collective decision” to back the plan, rather than support alternatives, such as a no-deal Brexit, or abandoning the effort completely despite the referendum calling for such severance.

“The cabinet has just had a long, detailed and impassioned debate on the draft withdrawal agreement and on the outline political declaration on our future relationship with the European Union,” May, in a statement following the contentious debate, said. “I firmly believe that the draft withdrawal agreement was the best that could be negotiated and it was for the cabinet to decide whether to move on in the talks. The choices before us were difficult … but the collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration. This is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalize the deal in the days ahead.”

 “When you strip away the detail the choice before us is clear,” she added. “I know that there will be difficult days ahead. This is a decision which will come under intense scrutiny, and that is entirely as it should be, and entirely understandable. But the choice was this deal, which enables us to take back control and build a brighter future for our country, or going back to square one, with more division, more uncertainty, and the failure to deliver on the referendum.”

“I’m old enough to remember the days when compliance people were stashed in windowless rooms and dumped with all the rubbish that they could be dumped with. Today, compliance is very much a strategic part of border operations, and with Brexit and its challenges maybe more so. [Compliance is] going to have to help the business adjust to the new reality, whatever that reality is.”

Clive O’Connell, Partner, McCarthy Denning

The full text of the withdrawal agreement was due to be released later that evening. Accompanying it was a new seven-page document, an “Outline Of The Political Declaration Setting Out The Framework For The Future Relationship Between The European Union And The United Kingdom.”

Highlights of that document include:

  • Reaffirmation of the U.K.’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Commitment to a high level of personal data protection, including a pledge that the United Kingdom will take steps “to ensure comparable facilitation of personal data flows to the Union,” and ensure appropriate cooperation between regulators.
  • Comprehensive arrangements “creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.”
  • Zero tariffs, no fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all goods sectors, “with ambitious customs arrangements that build on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.”
  • U.K. commitments on customs and regulatory cooperation for checks and controls at the border.
  • Commitments to preserving financial stability, market integrity, investor protection, and fair competition while respecting the parties’ regulatory and decision-making autonomy.
  • Provisions to facilitate electronic commerce and cross-border data flows, address unjustified barriers to trade by electronic means, and ensure an open, secure and trustworthy online environment while not affecting the parties’ data protection rules.
  • The protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights beyond multilateral treaties.
  • Arrangements on temporary entry and stay of natural persons for business purposes in defined areas.
  • A Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, covering market access and investment, aviation safety and security, air traffic management, and provisions to ensure open and fair competition.
  • Comparable market access for freight and passenger road transport operators.
  • Consideration of arrangements to address travel by private motorists.
  • An intention to make bilateral arrangements for cross-border rail services.
  • A framework to facilitate technical cooperation between electricity and gas networks operators.
  • Consideration of cooperation on carbon pricing by linking a U.K. national greenhouse gas emissions trading system with the EU’s Emissions Trading System.

By hammering out the details of a draft agreement, May and her cabinet might offer something that has been in short supply throughout the process: certainty.

A day earlier, at Compliance Week Europe 2018, during a panel discussion on “The Impact of Brexit on Compliance Program Management,” experts addressed business uncertainty.

Is your company ready for any and all things Brexit? Roughly 83 percent of the audience answered that survey question by saying they were not.

Among the lingering questions:

  • Will U.K. businesses need to obtain separate licenses to do business in the European Union (and vice versa)?
  • Does an EU company wishing to offer securities to the public in the United Kingdom need to get an approval from the U.K. regulator as well?
  • How will data protection laws change or evolve?
  • Will it still be possible to transfer personal data to the United Kingdom after Brexit?
  • What effect will Brexit have on imports, exports, and taxes?
  • How will intellectual property rights and trademarks be affected, if not protected?

“The problem at the moment is that no one knows what type of Brexit it is going to be,” said Clive O’Connell, partner and head of insurance and reinsurance for McCarthy Denning. “Therefore one is in a position of either having to prepare for the very worst, in which case you should have been doing that at least two years ago, if not longer ago. Or, on the other hand, you might just sit there and hope that things won’t be quite as bad, in which case you wouldn’t have to do anything. People seem to be split into two camps: either thoroughly prepared, or they’re sitting there praying.”

Chris Laws, global head of product development, supply & compliance solutions at Dun & Bradstreet, addressed the challenges that could be posed for supply chain management. “We really focus on two things,” he said. “One is how we handle the transfer of businesses’ data. We are a data-led organization, so [it is important to] get the appropriate data transfer mechanisms in place.” There was also “outreach to clients and suppliers.”

“It’s very difficult for us because we’re a high-tech company,” said Susan Du Becker, head of global compliance enablement for Cisco Systems. “Key things for us are customs, tax, and import-export. We moved a lot of business through the U.K. a few years ago, so eyebrows went up when Brexit came up, because we were thinking, ‘Do we have to move it all back again?’ We’ve taken a lot of steps to look at things from a compliance perspective. We’ve looked at our program, at what is it that is necessary for us, and we’ve got awareness of what we need to do. You need to be agile, because when they push the buttons, things will start moving one way or the other. I don’t think we should panic. Business is business, and it will survive. There will be a bit of rocking to and fro, and there will be winners and losers, but businesses are very inventive. We all work for companies that have great ways of thinking around how we need to achieve things.”

“From a compliance perspective, I just have to make sure that my risk assessments and my gap analysis support my business, what it is that they’re trying to do, and don’t get in the way,” she added. “You’re going to have to be able to move quickly.”

“I’m old enough to remember the days when compliance people were stashed in windowless rooms and dumped with all the rubbish that they could be dumped with,” O’Connell said. “Today, compliance is very much a strategic part of border operations, and with Brexit and its challenges maybe more so. [Compliance is] going to have to help the business adjust to the new reality, whatever that reality is.”

There will be a period of time “where lessons will have to be learned in a hard way,” Du Becker added. “But at the end of the day, don’t panic, because we will have to come around to some sort of reconciliation, conciliation, and working methodology. That’s where we need to take all the hype that the media have—whatever newspaper comes up with the latest doom and gloom, which we British, let’s face it, are very good at.”