UK business group worried by government's Brexit comments

LONDON – The British government is facing criticism from business groups over statements suggesting the U.K. is heading for a hard divorce from the European Union — and pressure from lawmakers who want Parliament to have a vote on the proposed exit terms.

The government’s repeated emphasis on controlling immigration sent out “signs that the door is being closed, to an extent, on the open economy, that has helped fuel investment,” the head of employers’ group the Confederation of British Industry, Carolyn Fairbairn, said in comments published Monday.

Prime Minister Theresa May said last week that Britain would seek to retain a close relationship with the 28-nation bloc, with continued free trade in goods and services. But she said the U.K. wouldn’t cede control over immigration, a conflict with the EU’s principle of free movement among member states.

European leaders say that means Britain can’t remain a member of the EU’s tariff-free single market — an alarming prospect for many U.K. businesses.

In another statement that sent ripples of alarm through Britain’s business world, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that companies could be forced to disclose what percentage of their workforce was from other countries.

Fairbairn told the Times of London newspaper that business leaders regard the idea “as an indication that it is somehow a shameful thing to be attracting the best talent from around the world, rather than a source of pride.”

Downing St. spokesman Greg Swift said Monday that the idea was only a suggestion and might not become policy. He said “it’s one area that’s being looked at as part of a wider consultation process” on British immigration policy.

Businesses have also been concerned by uncertainty over whether up to 3 million EU citizens who currently live in the U.K. will get to stay.

May said Monday during a visit to Copenhagen that “I expect to be able to guarantee the legal rights of EU nationals already in the U.K.,” as long as British nationals elsewhere in the EU receive the same treatment.

May has said she will invoke Article 50 of the EU constitution — triggering two years of official exit talks — by March 31.

Opposition lawmakers —and some from May’s Conservative Party — say Parliament should be given a say in approving Britain’s negotiating terms with the EU. They worry the government has decided to seek a “hard Brexit” that means leaving the single market.

Conservative lawmaker Andrew Tyrie said “it will greatly strengthen the prime minister’s hand in negotiations” if the plans have the backing of Parliament.

Swift, the prime minister’s spokesman, said lawmakers would get the chance to “debate and scrutinize” negotiations as they went on. But he said “having a second vote to second-guess the will of the British people is not a sensible way forward.”