Should we stay or should we go?

It has only been a week since we learned the results of the British EU-Referendum. Voters, politicians and business people are slowly coming to terms with the decision to leave the European Union. Although we can’t foresee all of the implications yet, it is quite obvious that the amount of change will be tremendous.

That’s especially true for firms that rely on accessing the European Single Market (e.g. Vodafone, the telecommunications company, or EasyJet, the low budget airline). Both Vodafone and Easyjet are headquartered in the UK, for now. Given that the UK might lose its access to the single market, these firms have, among others, announced that they could be forced to relocate their headquarters, should it be necessary for their businesses.

This news also got my editors interested. Ideally, they want me to find a company that will not wait whether and when Article 50 – the official start of the British divorce from Europe – is triggered, but that will be moving to Continental Europe any time soon. So far, I haven’t managed to find such a company.

According to what a German lawyer told me on Thursday, the reason for this is simple. Relocating your headquarters is a complex, time consuming and expensive business, not something you would do just in case, as a precautionary measure. “The starting shot will only be fired once we have clarity over the progress of the negotiations”, Marcel Hagemann, a partner at CMS Legal, told me.

Assuming that Article 50 will be triggered towards the end of the year, the UK has two years, until the end of 2018, to come to an agreement with the EU. His expectation is that by the end of 2017, we should see companies starting to relocate to the EU.

“You need some notice for this”, Hagemann said. From the legal side of things, it takes about a year to move a company from the UK to Europe, depending on what kind of legal process you want to undergo. According to the lawyer, there are two core solutions to this issue.

Firstly, there is the merger between the UK entity and a Continental European entity. For this, you can either establish a new company in Europe or buy an existing one. The only important thing is to merge this one with your British entity, making sure that the headquarter of the new entity is based outside of Britain. This is, Hagemann said, a relatively simple process, assuming that your company is not listed in Britain. If it is, it will lose its listing here in the UK (as it is not longer headquartered here).

The second solution to the problem is the creation of a European public company, a Societas Europaea (abbreviated SE). So far, the UK only has 34 of these whereas Germany has 350 SE-style companies. According to the lawyer, an SE is functioning similarly to a PLC. Whereas the founding of an SE is a bit complicated, moving the headquarters from the UK to Continental Europe should be relatively straight forward – as long as you finish the process before the UK officially leaves the EU.

When asked how expensive the whole process might be, Hagemann shrugged. Obviously, he did not want to be nailed down to a specific number. “It varies a lot, depending on the size of the company and the amount of people that will have to move”, he stated. Whereas he does not think that anyone will officially move their headquarters before the end of 2017, many firms have started searching for alternative locations.

Duesseldorf, where Hagemann is based, has already rolled out the red carpet to British telecommunication firms such as Vodafone. “They already have their German office there, so maybe this would be a good choice for the group headquarters as well”, Hagemann said.

Although the outcome of the referendum did surprise him, the German is still hopeful. “In the past, the British have been very good at negotiating in their favour”, he said. Plus: “Don’t forget that Germany has an interest in keeping them in the Single Market. We do have a strong voice here.”

Firms however will have to prepare for the worst. If they only learned one thing since the British referendum, it is that politicians don’t tend to stick to what they said before. Thus, they’d better be prepared if Britain’s EU negotiations break down in late 2018, leaving them with the prospect of a hard Brexit.

Some firms have already reacted. Siemens for example, the German industrials company, will not make further investments here in the UK before they have clarity over where the country might be heading. Two days ago, Virgin cancelled a deal that would have seen them take over 3000 staff. UOB, the Singaporean bank, stopped providing financing for British real estate projects.

According to Hagemann, we will see much more of this – but only once it is clear whether Britain remains part of the Single Market or not. “German companies will not start closing their factories straight away”, the lawyer said.

What a great relief. So watch out for 2017.