Be careful what you wish for: the reality of Brexit

It is said that when the gods wish to punish us, they start by answering our prayers. Which is another way of saying be very careful what you wish for.

Or, more to the point, anyone who voted in favour of Brexit should be thinking long and hard about whether the way things have turned out has been entirely in line with their most deeply held wishes. It was never easy to pin down precisely what those ambitions for the future actually were, but high on the list of many of those who voted to break away from the EU seemed to be the following things:

  • The removal of foreign controls over UK decision-making
  • Free trade across global markets
  • A strong UK national identity
  • A proud and prosperous, future-looking nation
  • Parliamentary sovereignty.

Four and a half years after the vote, we finally have the detailed information on which we can begin to make proper judgments, about what it is we have actually achieved. On a first look at the 1,246-page document, things don’t look entirely promising.

  1. We are no longer under the control of decisions made by the European Court of Justice. Instead, we are subject to decisions made by an independent panel of international corporate lawyers. Oversight of trade disputes now sits with a Specialist Committee of the Partnership Council (p.385). If the EU thinks the UK is unfairly subsidising trade, or has introduced new legislation that has given it an advantage, then it can seek recompense and enforce tariffs. The UK is out of one regulatory frying pan and straight into another.
  2. There is freedom of trade in goods between Britain and Europe. Provided you have first filled all necessary forms. And been placed on any required registers. And, where necessary, had your goods checked at the borders or earlier. And you can deal with the delays on perishable loads whilst any of the possible checks are carried out. The EU is free to continue to sell more goods to Britain than Britain does to the EU, tariff free.
  3. There is almost no freedom of trade in services, which just happens to be the key area where the UK exports more than it imports and, until now, depended heavily on being at the centre of a European market. Financial services firms can therefore trade more easily out of Frankfurt than London. A whole host of other businesses, like architects, cannot win commissions across Europe because their qualifications are no longer recognised. The UK creative industries and information technology businesses are particularly hard hit. In other words, the UK is free to continue to buy more goods than it sells to the EU but can’t easily sell its services.
  4. The United Kingdom is no longer one single economic trading block across which the same rules apply. Northern Ireland now works on European Union rules whilst the rest of the UK doesn’t. Paperwork and customs checks are required on trade within our nation. A situation that exists within no other nation on the entire planet.
  5. The UK parliament has been massively weakened and has been treated with utter contempt by the executive. It is now so weak, that it can be summoned to meet for one day on the 30 December, in order to be told to pass the necessary UK legislation as required under the terms of the agreement – an agreement that will come into force two days later. Not one word of the 1,246-page agreement can be changed by parliament. Any pretence of proper scrutiny has been abandoned.

It ought therefore to be glaringly obvious to anyone other than the most blinkered enthusiast that Johnson has signed us up to a bad deal that bears little or no resemblance to what was originally promised. That is not to say that there were no potential gains from leaving the EU, just that the big ones haven’t been delivered by this deal.

There are, however, two very real gains where there is still some chance of success.

The first is that the UK is free to set its own agricultural policy and doesn’t have to follow the clumsy EU common agricultural policy. All the signs are that a much better way of subsidising agriculture can be designed, that will allow farmers to be paid for the environmental gains achieved on their land. Which is fine, until the day that a free trade deal is signed with the USA.

As soon as that happens British farmers are sunk. They will only be able to collect subsidies if they farm responsibly, but they will have to sell their produce on domestic markets dominated by mass-produced chemical-soaked US competitors. If anyone is under the illusion that any US president will agree any trade deal that doesn’t give US farmers easy access to the UK market, then they need to wise up quickly. Our farmers are being set up to be sold out.

The second advantage of leaving the EU is that some of the money that was channelled through Brussels and then came back to us, was subject to some very clumsy procurement mechanisms. It was always a huge lie to quote what we paid in and fail to quote what we got back. It was not a lie to accuse the EU regional support schemes like the European Social Fund of being remote, over bureaucratic and badly organised.

I know this because I successfully applied to use some of those funds and later had a job in UK education that involved organising the handing out of most of the money that was directed to Yorkshire. The UK is quite capable of designing better, quicker, more targeted and more long-lasting regional support funding mechanisms. It is a touch unfortunate that we currently have a government that has proved completely incapable of doing this, but that doesn’t have to be inevitable.

All of which brings me to the third set of issues with the actual Brexit deal that we now have – as opposed to the promised one that never materialised. Leaving the EU was never going to involve a one-way trade off where the UK gained much and lost nothing. We are now much clearer about what we have actually lost than we were when the referendum was held. Unlike the gains that were promised, those losses weren’t exaggerated. They were real and substantial and have gone way beyond any of the promises that were made to the public at the time. Those losses include:

  • A UK citizen can only stay in the EU for 90 days in any 180-day period – our freedom of movement has therefore been abolished.
  • You now need an international driving licence, expensive health insurance and a lot of credit on your phone before you can travel.
  • Many UK ex-pats living in the EU will have to come back to Britain for most of the year and can no longer access EU health services free of charge by right. You no longer have an automatic right to live in the EU.
  • A UK citizen can only work in the EU for strictly limited periods of time, and will only rarely be recognised as qualified to work there.
  • UK lorry drivers can only make one delivery within the EU and cannot earn anything by picking up multiple loads as they work their way home. They will have to sit for hours at borders seeing their earnings fall and their costs rise.
  • UK exporters and importers have extra paperwork and registration costs and in most service sectors simply aren’t registered to do business. That will cost jobs.
  • Businesses must prove that they comply with incredibly complex rules over how much of the value of the components of their products came from the UK; these rules cover 69 pages of the new agreement (pp. 415 to 484). That will also cost jobs.

There are those who will regard these losses as a small price to pay for getting free of the pesky bureaucracy of the EU, and are now incredibly proud that we are out there on our own as the fifth biggest economy in the world. Indeed, several of the papers are busy telling us that we must rejoice as a nation and that this deal is a triumph.

I doubt whether too many of the lorry drivers who will be stuck in Kent with the wrong paperwork, the wrong load, or the wrong licences will agree. Or that too many of the people who lose jobs or income, or businesses that lose orders they will never get back, will be celebrating. The best that can be said is that the UK dodged the bullet of no deal with one week to spare. As the Conservative Michael Heseltine said, the prisoner has escaped death row only to face a life sentence.

Having signed up in haste, it will be interesting to see how long it takes the nation to realise that doing that has a nasty tendency to result in only one outcome. We get to regret at our leisure.

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