By Paul Sheerin

Like most people of my age, I have accumulated a fair few bosses in my career at this stage, and I can honestly say I have learned something from all of them.

Admittedly a few were learnings on what I didn’t want to do, and some surprised me only by having moments of crystal-clear lucidity amongst a haze of bewildering pronouncements. The good ones encouraged and coached me, and one great one set a standard I will always strive to match. This last one left many lasting guides, but the one that springs to mind this week was their candid appraisal of my failure to balance the need for operational, tactical and strategic thinking, reinforced by the phrase “the difference between managers and leaders is that on a regular basis leaders remind themselves to lift their eyes from their shoes and look at the horizon”.

In 2020, I and many others might have to be honest to admit that our eyes have been too close to our shoes since March, and meanwhile the clock has remained ticking on another uncertainty to our wider economy, and for our engineering sector particularly: Brexit.

A first wake-up call came from the soft launch from the UK Government outlining proposals for the border processes for customs control between GB and the EU, and between GB and Northern Ireland. Let’s set aside the memory that this wasn’t what we remembered being promised for movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, and concentrate on the hardening tone that this time there will be no reprieves, extensions or other considerations of damage limitation. This is especially important against a backdrop of news that plans for more than £700 million of additional border infrastructure have been announced, a figure which would have normally raised an eyebrow, but in Covid spending terms isn’t really at the races.

The eye-catching appraisal is that after the transition period, an estimated 400 million extra customs declarations could average up to £13 billion per year additional cost to UK businesses. For manufacturing in Scotland, its output makes up more than 50 per cent of our exports, and any additional costs on top of the pandemic impact are the exact opposite of what is needed.

The second set of sobering reminders came closer to home, firstly with the proposed closure of technical ceramics manufacturer Coorstek in Fife, a highly competent and respected employer in the area, its parent company citing the potential impact of Brexit as one of its reasons for exiting Scotland. Alongside this, manufacturing companies evaluating the reality of released UK global tariff proposals have highlighted cases where they will pay significant tariffs to import essential and substantial component parts of their final sold goods, but competitors from the EU will be able to export their finished sold goods to the UK – including those same component parts – tariff free. Make sense of that if you will.

I have always struggled to see value in Brexit, but in today's full-blown economic crisis, the prospect of a course of action sure to add further damage is incomprehensible.

This week therefore becomes critical in the increasingly tenuous hope that a sensible deal can be reached to preserve the strongest possible trading relationship with the trading bloc that accounts for over 40% of the UK’s exports.

Significantly, this is the first full set of talks to be held in London, and success will be dependent on compromise by both sides. Flexibility on governance and level playing field by the UK could be met with a balance from the EU on state aid, European Court of Justice and maybe even fishing. Given that UK manufacturing stands to lose so much from the prospect of an oven that seems only now to be have been switched on, and is struggling to hold an even temperature, I’d like to see the UK lead first in that compromise.

Without the frictionless trade deal we were promised, 2020 is not the year to just give it a bash, but it is time to stop posturing and get a common sense deal thrashed out. Companies are not ready, Government is not ready, and our economy could well do without any self-inflicted harm on top of the challenges we already face.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering