OECD chief: We have to make Brexit as smooth as possible

Ángel Gurría, the head of one of the west’s leading thinktanks and one of the most prominent supporters of remain during the EU referendum campaign, has said it is time to move on and ensure that Brexit is a success.

“We have no choice,” the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said in an interview with the Guardian at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “We have to take action and make it as smooth as possible.”

Gurría said Britain would retain close links with the EU despite the vote to leave in June 2016. “There is a nearness and a closeness, 40 years of living as part of the same family. That doesn’t disappear with the stroke of a pen or because of a referendum.”

The OECD secretary general said his strong support for the UK to remain in the EU had been to no avail. But he said Britain needed to retain close links with the other 27 EU member states to minimise disruption.

“I was strongly against Brexit. I speechified against Brexit. I said a vote to leave would be a Brexit tax. I couldn’t think of anything stronger than that. I have family who are British citizens and who want to be citizens of the world and citizens of the EU,” he said.

“But we didn’t win. It was decided upon, voted on, confirmed by parliament. What we have to do now is make Brexit as least costly and as least disruptive as possible.”

Gurría said the UK’s history and geography meant it would always be an important trading partner of the EU and played down suggestions that Brexit would affect London’s position as one of the world’s three big financial centres. “The City of London is always going to be there and will continue to be important,” he said.

Last year, the Paris-based thinktank fuelled speculation that it wanted a second EU referendum when it said it would upwardly revise its gloomy economic forecasts for the UK if the Brexit vote was overturned. But Gurría said the decision had been taken.

“Let’s turn it around. Let’s take action to make it work. Let’s move on,” he said.

The OECD secretary general said the backdrop to the Brexit process was a global economy that was improving but yet to return to the growth levels seen before the financial crisis of a decade ago.

“We are not having a boom, we are having a recovery,” he said. “It has taken 10 years and we are still not back to where we were before. That should be sobering.”

Gurría said reforms to improve education and skills, and action to boost research and development, were important to make the global upswing sustainable. But he added that an OECD assessment showed that only half the growth-boosting measures promised by leading developed and developing countries had actually been delivered. “There seems to be some kind of reform fatigue,” he said.

He added that governments were putting off reforms because they were deemed less urgent now that their economies had started to grow again. “That will make the next crisis or the next bump in the road come closer,” he said.

Before Donald Trump’s expected appearance in Davos on Friday, Gurría said he was hopeful that the US president would “embrace multiateralism”.

Trump has threatened to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement and has withdrawn the US from the UN compact on migration and refugees, but the head of the OECD said it was important that action taken by America dovetailed with international efforts.

Gurría said these were issues that couldn’t be dealt with individually even by a country as big as the US.

“Doing it together works better,” he said. “Collective action is greater than the sum of the individual parts that go into it and the benefits to all will be greater than the effort that any one country can undertake.”