Since the referendum vote, Brexiteers have rallied around the claim that Britain can carve out a unique position in today’s global economy, outside of Europe. We all know that the UK’s relationship with the EU is changing, and Brexit plans agreed at Chequers this weekend pledge ‘harmonisation’ with the EU Customs Union. Yet, the proposed regulatory divergence in trade in services has done little to instill a sense of certainty within the tech sector and could spell disaster if rejected by Brussels.
The tech community is in urgent need for clarity over what a future services deal will look like, as the EU is a key strategic partner and marketplace – we must get this right.
In recent years, the UK tech community has come to dominate its European counterparts in attracting investment and producing the region’s biggest businesses. New research from GP Bullhound shows that over the last 18 years the UK ecosystem has nurtured the highest number of billion-dollar companies in Europe, a grand total of 26. Britain now sits alongside the US and China as a truly global tech hub.
Yet, we cannot turn our gaze from Europe for a moment. Now more than ever, it is essential that the UK tech sector actively supports collaboration with EU states – especially if Britain sits outside of the European Digital Single Market.
Culture secretary Matt Hancock is leading the charge, last week announcing a five-year deal between Britain and France to support innovation through increased ties, shared research data, and combined efforts to develop AI technologies.
Hancock announced that, ‘London is the AI capital of Europe.’ It’s high praise and a testament to the world-leading advancements that UK start-ups and scale-ups have generated in this space. If the digital economy is to remain on such a prosperous trajectory it is crucial that the tech sector sees Europe as key to the future, and not just the past.
Last week, Global Tech Advocates also took steps to cement ties with one of the European tech sectors on the rise and launched its tenth international working group in Milan at the Cariplo Factory – these types of partnerships show how the UK’s future relationship with EU countries can support mutual success.
Tech Italy Advocates will be the first entirely independent, not-for-profit, private sector-led tech network in the country, designed to sponsor growth in the Italian tech sector.
The start-up scene in Italy is gathering momentum and showing impressive growth, with the likes of Mosaicoon, Musement, and Tag representative of a thriving tech ecosystem. The Italian government has also shown support, recently announcing the Industrial National Plan 4.0 which aims to support the “digitisation of the national economy”.
Tech Italy Advocates will champion the concentration of tech founders and developers in cities such as Milan and Rome, and help to support greater connections with the community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors in the UK. It joins other Global Tech Advocates groups across Europe – Nordics, Spain, North (of England), Belfast, and, of course the London group with Paris to launch later this year.
Previously Italy has struggled to galvanise an ecosystem to the same extent that has been seen across Europe. The country’s tech sector has been largely overshadowed by growth in London, Berlin, and Paris – the venture capital market stands at less than three per cent of that in the UK.
However, there are now signs that the tide is starting to turn. Italy is home to highly skilled talent with the desire to create the businesses of tomorrow, that will come to compete with the established tech powers – Italy is the birthplace of both Moneyfarm and Cuebiq.
The UK tech community must play a part in the growth of the emerging ecosystems, like Italy’s. Despite the final Brexit outcome, Britain must look to Europe and speak the language of opportunity, fostering partnerships with the likes of Paris, Berlin and Milan but equally recognising the depth of potential across the continent.
The resilience, creativity and ingenuity that the tech sector has shown in the face of Brexit suggests that whatever the formal relationship with Europe will come to look like, where there is opportunity to grow, build further relationships and create collaborative environments the tech sector will strive to achieve it.
There is a collective sentiment spreading across Europe about where future growth is going to be found and that if you want a strong traditional economy you better make sure your digital one is on the move.
As the EU Digital Single Market advances, added emphasis from EU policymakers and investors is being placed on multiple European tech hubs and the further reduction of cross-border barriers – it is vital that our leaders in government and the private sector see Europe as a place to expand and create lasting relationships, starting today.
Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates.