Living with uncertainty – the possible implications of Brexit for social enterprises

great briitain leaves european union metaphor

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

Moments such as the EU referendum seem to be of such enormous historical import that it would be irresponsible to ignore them. Hence, when I sat down to write the first Commonhealth blog of the post-referendum era, the implications of Brexit seemed the most obvious theme. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, however, it is almost impossible to distinguish between wise predictions of the future and the meaningless sound and fury that fills the 24-hour news cycle.

So what can we say with any certainty about the implications of Brexit for social enterprise? Probably not much, but there may be a few things to watch out for in the coming months…

Firstly, the economic effects of Brexit are likely to affect all of us, including social enterprises. Setting aside the inevitable dip in the markets after the vote, nobody can yet say with any certainty whether the Remain campaign’s predictions of economic doom or the Leave campaign’s forecast of long-term growth will prove correct. However, the evidence suggests that the majority of social enterprise leaders are relatively optimistic about their ability to weather the storm – according to Social Enterprise UK’s pre-referendum polling, nearly 60% said that they did not expect Brexit to put their business at risk.

Secondly, for any social enterprise which relies in part on EU funding (particularly given the importance of the European Social Fund in the employability field), these will be nervous days. Whilst such funding may disappear with Brexit, there are clearly political decisions to be made as to whether similar funding is made available within the UK, if the government is no longer contributing to the EU.

Thirdly, some have suggested that there may be new opportunities for social enterprises bidding for public contracts, if the EU constraints on procurement are removed. However, any such changes are unlikely to happen quickly, since EU regulations have largely been incorporated into domestic legislation.

Fourthly, who knows what will happen here in Scotland? As Nicola Sturgeon starts to build European alliances amid the possibility of Indyref2, Brexit could conceivably be followed by Scentry, or even supplanted by Screplacement…

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, social enterprises may be well-placed to manage the uncertainty. As Peter Holbrook, Chief Exec of SEUK suggests, “social entrepreneurs are nothing if not adaptable and I have faith that most leaders of social enterprises will see whatever lies ahead as a challenge rather than a threat.” And crucially, the Commonhealth team will continue to research the impacts of social enterprise – the world may seem different after the referendum, but we still need good research evidence if policy-makers are going to make informed decisions for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Steve Rolfe


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