Brexit: Good or Bad for Britain?
Andrew Adonis argues that Brexit has been a self-imposed disaster, while Harry Phibbs argues that it puts Britain's fate back in British hands.
Andrew Adonis: Brexit is Bad.
Andrew Adonis is a former Labour Cabinet minister and is chairman of European Movement UK.
Six years ago this month, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Virtually every poll in the last four years has shown that more people regret Brexit than not, as people come face to face with reality, particularly the trade barriers for businesses and the higher prices for consumers in shops. Now people realize that Brexit means making the country poorer—a terrible double whammy on top of the impact of COVID-19—they would probably reverse it if they could.
How, then, did Brexit win a narrow majority in the 2016 referendum?
The Remain side failed to make much of an impression on the public, fighting a dull and complacent campaign that failed to convey the benefits of Europe. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to be a broken record when he was wheeled into television studios. The next biggest figure on the Remain side, austerity finance minister George Osborne, was especially unpopular with Labour voters in the Midlands and the North of England because of the cuts he had imposed on welfare and public services. These were the key swing votes which delivered the 52/48 majority for Brexit.
Meanwhile, “Leavers” such as future prime minister Boris Johnson and UKIP leader Nigel Farage did stunt after stunt which caught the headlines, promising to reverse everything unpopular about the EU—like fishing quotas and red tape—while protecting trade, lowering taxes and saving money. Johnson went around the country in his notorious red bus emblazoned with the promise of £350 million a week extra for the National Health Service after Brexit—which never happened. He also promised to keep existing EU trading arrangements and secure great new global trade deals. This didn't happen either. Nevertheless, Leave became associated with change; Remain represented the status quo. At a time of unpopular austerity, “change” sounded more exciting than “more of the same” from a distant and unpopular government.
None of the 2016 Leave campaign promises could be tested against reality because no negotiations for Brexit had yet started. When we finally left in 2020, it was not just any Brexit, but a Brexit taking Britain entirely out of the European customs union and single market, decimating our trade and causing a major ongoing crisis in Northern Ireland. As reality dawned, support for Brexit dimmed. But it was too late.
The most obvious impact has been felt in the economy. When Britain joined the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU) in 1973, GDP for that year’s first quarter was up 5.3%, by far the largest quarterly increase in recorded history. In the years that followed, Britain may have experienced economically turbulent times (notably the world financial crisis in 2008), but economic growth remained relatively stable.
Today, according to the OBR, Brexit is on course to cause a 4% reduction in the size of Britain’s economy over the long-run. Now that the stability from direct European markets and financial integration is unavailable, Britain is left in the wilderness. After a tough Covid-19 pandemic, this will only make the country weaker and less economically powerful.
For many Leave voters, one of the most attractive prospects of leaving the EU was this idea of “a Global Britain.” But there is no reality to Global Britain if the first step on the way is to make trade harder with our closest partners. Leaving the European Union means that Britain has left one of the largest economic blocs in the world. While Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been parading around the world seeking trade agreements with countries such as Canada and Japan, Britain would be kidding itself if it thought these trade settlements could even be remotely compared to the titanic EU, of which nine member states internally exported €100 billion worth of goods in 2020. Astonishingly, nearly half of British companies that traded with the EU before Brexit are doing less trade or have stopped doing so entirely. This is the steepest fall recorded in trade with our European neighbors since records began.
Another promise of the Leave camp was that we would be able to tackle inequality outside the EU. Especially in the 2019 election campaign, Conservatives and government ministers kept on repeating the mantra of “leveling up.” This was an attack not exclusively on the European Union, but also on UK governments which had done so little to bridge the division between richer and poorer regions of the UK over recent decades. Boris Johnson and Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove pretended that they and previous administrations were bound to the EU like prisoners, and any domestic reforms would be impossible while a member state.
But most north European states are far more equal than Britain, and do more for the poor. They also have far narrower disparities between their richer and poorer regions. How can we have been prisoners to a failing EU if UK governments introduced the Race Relations Act (promoting racial equality), the Right to Buy scheme (promoting home ownership), the minimum wage, devolution to the constitutive nations of the UK, civil partnerships, the abolition of a law which sought to ban the promotion of gay lifestyles in schools, and gay marriage? This argument is an insult to Britain’s own domestic powers and a prime example of how reactionary populists have a need to blame every woe and setback on foreign powers.
Being part of the European Union didn't mean that we were unacceptably controlled by Brussels. It gave us completely free trade, bigger markets, and minimum standards in key areas like consumer and environmental protection and working conditions. Gove now says that reducing regional inequality in the north of England has become more difficult because of inflation. Just as they did with the European Union, Brexit politicians are searching for the nearest available scapegoat for their own failure and inaction.
Ending the EU’s freedom of movement doesn’t mean, as some feared, that you can't hop over to Spain or Greece for a holiday on a cheap flight. But if you want to settle abroad, or work abroad, or study abroad, it is harder, if not impossible. Even The Telegraph, an avid proponent of anti-EU reporting, wrote last November that further fees must be paid by holidaymakers heading for Europe. Brexit has come with big financial and personal penalties.
Finally, the war in Ukraine is Europe’s biggest crisis since Covid, and Brexit hasn't stopped us playing our part. Britain is still in NATO, and we are still protected by the American security umbrella. But Europe has got to play a bigger part in its own defense, and we may be forced to increase defense spending dramatically if Donald Trump or a populist like him were elected and weakens or terminates the US commitment to NATO. Either way, security cooperation between European states will play a steadily bigger role in our defense. Being out of the EU is harmful here too, because the UK is no longer part of the regular heads of government and other key meetings and processes of the EU.
Brexit was a mistake. Its main effects are to reduce our trade, and make both imports and exports more expensive, and to reduce our political and strategic cooperation with our European neighbors and allies, and thereby to take unnecessary risks with our national security. We would be better off, safer and more secure in the EU.
Harry Phibbs: Brexit is Good.
Harry Phibbs is a British freelance journalist. He is a contributor to the Conservative Home website and a former Conservative councillor.
The British have a natural preference for evolutionary change rather than revolutionary upheaval. Even so, the UK’s liberation from the European Union has been frustratingly slow.
Our “Independence Day” was June 23rd 2016—the date of the referendum when the historic decision was made. But the UK didn't officially leave until January 31st 2020. Even then the “transition period” only ended on December 31st that year. There has not been a great upsurge of triumphalism. Yet those of us who voted to leave the EU are overwhelmingly proud of the decision we made.
So what have been the benefits so far?
For a start, as the British are no longer members there is no longer a membership subscription in the form of EU Budget contributions. During the referendum campaign there was an argument about how much these contributions really cost us. Leave campaigners claimed it was £350 million a week. This was a provocative claim, as that was the gross figure and did not take account of the rebate we received back. The “Remainers” spent a lot of time arguing that the true sum was £250 million a week or £120 million a week. In any event, it was a lot of money to spend. That burden on the taxpayer has now been lifted.
Leaving the EU has also greatly enhanced the UK's response to one of the great international challenges of our time. When it came to our response to Covid, the UK was ahead of the pack on purchasing vaccines. Key to its agility was the fact that it left the European Medicines Agency. (Technically, countries that were members of the EMA would have been allowed to take independent initiatives. But there was enormous pressure on them not to, pressure to which we would also have been subjected.)
In the UK a venture capitalist called Kate Bingham was put in charge—she adopted a bold approach and bet on several vaccine options. Britain’s nimble approach meant that pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca were able to receive approval much quicker. By contrast, the EU, struggling for 27 countries to agree, was lumbering, slow and bureaucratic. Brexit saved many lives by speeding up the process.
The longer-term economic Brexit benefits are only just starting to be realized. Free trade agreements—for instance with important partners such as Australia and India—will be phased in gradually.
Meanwhile, the UK can begin to get rid of the estimated 19,000 regulations inherited from the EU. An arrangement has been adopted that will allow the government to ditch unwanted rules with a fast-track mechanism called a “statutory instrument”—which is how the rules were nodded through in the first place.
Individually the regulations are often very boring and not of great consequence. But cumulatively the burden is considerable. Some are absurd. Some stifle innovation. Some are an affront to individual liberty. Some have a worthy motive but are counterproductive to the cause they are supposed to protect. Examples include those that drove smaller abattoirs out of business and favored larger companies. These were supposed to provide higher standards of animal welfare—but ended up requiring animals to be transported much longer distances. Then we had the ones favoring a switch to diesel engines in cars—brought in after some effective lobbying from Volkswagen. It was supposedly eco-friendly—reducing CO2 emissions. But diesel produces more nitrogen oxide, which is also a greenhouse gas and much more damaging to air quality.
There is some frustration among Brexiteers that progress hasn’t been more dramatic. Some were hoping our economic model would shift suddenly to a smaller state and a freer market. Thatcherism would return stronger than ever, no longer constrained by the EU. Global Britain would become a magnet for investment and a high growth economy.
That hasn't happened. At least, not so far. But then nor have the disasters that many predicted would follow a Leave vote in the referendum. They said there would be a huge rise in unemployment. At the time of the referendum, it was 4.9%. It’s now 3.7%—the lowest for 50 years. They said house prices would crash. The average price of an English home in June 2016 was £214,000. It is now £278,000 (not that everyone would regard that as good news.) There was also scaremongering about Scottish independence, EU nationals in the UK being deported, a massive stock market crash... none of which has happened. We have not retreated into xenophobia or a siege economy.
It is true that the journey has gone less smoothly than one might have hoped. That is partly because the EU has been slow to overcome its indignation at the UK’s departure. There was an expectation that the future relationship—regarding trade and other matters—would be practical based on mutual interests. But those negotiations have been distorted by an EU wish for there to be a cost to Brexit—even if the disruption of trade also is a cost to them. Michel Barnier, who led the negotiations with the UK on behalf of the EU, was reported to have said: “I’ll have done my job if, in the end, the deal is so tough on the British that they’d prefer to stay in the EU.”
The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the UK’s sole land border with the EU. For historical reasons, it was agreed that a physical border would be too inflammatory, and so a “protocol” was agreed to instead conduct checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But these arrangements have been applied by the EU in a vexatious manner. 20% of all the documentary checks on goods entering the entire single market take place on the Irish Sea crossing, despite Northern Ireland only accounting for the equivalent of 0.5% of the EU’s population. Archie Norman, the chairman of the supermarket chain Marks & Spencer, has said: “At the moment, wagons arriving in the Republic of Ireland have to carry 700 pages of documentation. It takes eight hours to prepare the documentation. Some of the descriptors, particularly of animal products, have to be written in Latin. It has to be in a certain typeface.”
So the UK will have to have new arrangements—as it is entitled to under the terms of the protocol if the EU will not agree by negotiation to a more sensible approach.
The journey back to being a proud nation state has begun tentatively. I am impatient and yearn for my fellow countrymen to be bolder. But leaving the EU does not mean Britain’s problems are solved. All it means is that those who are elected are no longer able to pass the buck. The people decide, through them, the laws they live under, the arrangements for trade, immigration, security and all the rest of it. Whatever mistakes the UK makes are its own responsibility, and its destiny is now in its own hands. That is the ultimate advance that Britain has made.