For U.S. exporters already dealing with multiple sets of regulations, duties and tariffs across the globe, the post-Brexit world is a mess that will take years to sort out.
In the decades since the European Union was created, American exporters have, with some exceptions, been able to count on a uniform set of regulations and standards. That could end now as Britain will be freed from EU rules and could begin the years-long process of replacing them with its own, impacting companies ranging from behemoths to small businesses fighting for a toehold in the vast market.
“Every place there’s a regulation is a place this could balloon out of control,” said Chuck Wetherington, president of BTE Technologies Inc., a Hanover, Maryland-based medical equipment exporter. “Our industry is screaming for harmonization, and instead we’re getting more and more disharmony.”
U.S. trade with the 28-member EU totaled $1.1 trillion last year — making it the world’s largest largest bilateral commercial relationship. Of that, 21 percent was with the U.K. alone, according to U.S. Commerce Department data, covering a vast swath of goods and services from air travel to wheat.
About a third of BTE’s medical equipment exports go to Europe, and a third of those go to the U.K., Wetherington said. BTE uses computers and robotics in highly engineered machines to simulate human movement and accelerate rehab for people recovering from injuries.
The immediate impact of the decision by the U.K. to leave the EU will be a drag on buying, as potential customers wait to see what happens with regulations and reimbursements, Wetherington said. He compares the shock to what happened with Obamacare in the U.S., when challenges to the law dragged on and slowed his sales.
Even if Britain ultimately adopts regulations identical to Europe’s, it will take a couple of years, Wetherington said. Meanwhile, there’s a new “regulatory island,” he said, with its own rules for tariffs, duties and material standards. The European market will be more like Asia, where BTE has to comply with different rules in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Malaysia.
The regulatory changes won’t be known for some time. Once the U.K. notifies the EU of its intention to leave, it will have two years to negotiate the exit under the terms of its treaty. But the process could take more than five to ten years, given its breadth and complexity, according to an International Air Transport Association report.
For some technology companies, there could be an upside. The U.K. might be inclined to ease rules on privacy policies, since the European Union has some of the strictest in the world, said Todd Thibodeaux, president and chief executive officer of CompTIA, a global technology trade association. That would benefit companies like Google, Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc., he said.
“Over time, we may see opportunities open up and the U.K. go after some sectors like Ireland has,” Thibodeaux said.
Caterpillar, the world’s biggest maker of machinery for mining and construction, issued a statement from U.K. Country Director Mark Dorsett urging both the U.K. and EU to make a priority of creating single-market access to reduce the impact on business and the economy.
Britain’s exit may complicate efforts to further ease trade between the U.S. and the European bloc. The Obama administration has been working with the EU to forge the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free-trade deal that seeks to cut tariffs and untangle a patchwork of regulations items from autos to songwriting royalties.
In a visit in April to London, Obama said Britain’s departure from the pact could force it to “the back of the queue” in negotiations.
The U.K.’s exit from the European bloc will be protracted, and the U.S. and EU could conclude their trans-Atlantic trade deal in the meantime, said Bill Reinsch, a fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. Ireland may be the big winner, because of its shared common language with the U.S. and access to the European market.