The credibility of Sir Keir Starmer’s claim that re-joining the single market is in effect less important to UK prosperity than ‘making Brexit work’ has been heavily criticised. While making the claim may have been seen by some as a necessary political tactic, the facts suggest that being in the single market would benefit the UK, as it did in the 1990s when Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher spear-headed its creation.
Oh no, not another referendum
It is understandable that no one wants to call a referendum on this. And one would not be necessary. There wasn’t one back in the 1990s in the UK and making the necessary technical arrangements now to slide into the single market would not be problematic. On the contrary, it would ease difficulties for trade partners in the UK and the EU. And anyone with an iota of compassion for families split from loved ones in other parts of the EU would give them back ‘freedom of movement’ to visit each other without restriction.
So if we look beyond the rhetoric, what are the facts?
UK economic situation
The News Agents podcast with Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel has previously explained that Britain is so much poorer than we might think, and poverty is getting worse.
In the spring this year, the think tank UK in a Changing Europe concluded that Brexit had led to a 6% rise in UK food prices between December 2019 and September 2021. Since then, things have got worse. The UK now has the worst living standards since the 1940s, soaring inflation, and exponentially rising – and uniquely high – energy prices.
The London School of Economics’ (LSE) Centre for Economic Performance looked into this and found clear correlation between government policy decisions and rising costs. It analysed trade figures from the UN and price data from the Office for National Statistics. These showed that the most notable price increases had nothing to do with Covid-19 or Russia. Rather, they coincided with the then prime minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 election victory and later with the post-Brexit trade arrangements that came into force in January 2021.
Their report concluded that without Brexit, food prices could have fallen BEFORE the cost-of-living crisis kicked in. And that hits the poorest the hardest.
When the LSE updated its work and reported last week on the situation, it concluded that the poorest decile of households face a 52% rise in the cost of living compared to those among the top ten decile of households. “By the end of 2021, Brexit had already cost UK households a total of £5.8 billion in higher food bills.” It also pointed out that EU exporters and UK importers face higher costs owing to non-tariff barriers (such a standards and administrative form filling). Between 50% and 80% of those costs are passed on to consumers.
One of the co-authors of the report, Professor Richard Davies, said, “The UK inflation rate rose above 11 per cent in 2022, the highest rise in 40 years”. His co-author, Nikhil Datta, estimated that “Brexit caused a loss of £210 for the average household”. And as Yorkshire Bylines’ Davis Downside Dossier reveals, small and medium sized businesses have closed; many – like Conservative ministers – have moved their business to the EU, or given up completely.
Brexit isn’t working
Consensus is growing that something needs to be done, and fast.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has been running a project on the Future of Britain to examine the challenges we face. It believes that the country must find “a sensible and pragmatic way through Brexit”. Brexit is not working and “any government, present or future, will need to confront post-Brexit challenges”.
A substantial and growing majority of the UK public, including Leave voters, agree. How to move forward is complicated by politicians’ posturing and deceits on both sides of the political spectrum.
Instead of banging on about making Brexit work, they should act to improve on the disastrous, messy and impoverishing situation they have put Britain in. That means openly admitting that we have strong, shared interests and values with the EU, and that therefore we would all benefit from a better relationship, at home and internationally, especially vis-à-vis Russia and China.
There’s nothing revolutionary or threatening in accepting that improving trade, and keeping higher standards on food, employment, human rights and the environment, makes sense. It would also make sense for the UK to stop trying to weaponise the Northern Ireland protocol to force the EU to change things by pressure rather than by informed, mutually respectful negotiation. The EU is our ally and anti-EU rhetoric distorts how important we are to each other. There is no way around that fact, so the adult thing to do would be to create a better relationship.
Britain benefitted from being in the EU single market
The facts speak for themselves. History shows that the UK gained from being in the EU and shaped the policies that produced the single market.
Pretending that the UK can be prosperous all by itself and cutting it off from the biggest, closest market – that it designed and influenced – is nothing short of stupid. It’s as daft as pretending that the Isle of Wight or Lundy Island could prosper if they erected trade and employment barriers between themselves and the UK.
Inside the EU, the UK’s regions benefited from more science, social and regional funding than they do now. The government apparently won’t match the scale and ambition of that EU funding.
While Rishi Sunak’s ministers occasionally talk about levelling up, the EU has moved on. The EU agenda is about quantum tech and cyber security, new green industrial strategies, sustainable post-pandemic resilience and recovery, re-energising EU capital markets, and fit-for-purpose youth policies. There is ambition and vision.
Why wouldn’t the UK want to benefit from what the EU tries to do in setting higher standards for the benefit of us all? If we were to rejoin the single market, we would be on the inside – not as EU members, but having the same opportunities as other non-EU states. We would not be trying to access our closest market blindfolded and hiding in a fridge trying to fill out reams of forms WE originally abandoned in agreement with our EU partners when WE helped create the single market.
We must remember that the single market is there to make our lives easier and to get rid of trade barriers, including the non-tariff barriers that slow things down and increase bureaucracy. Anyone in a Christmas post office queue can see the impact of that. The costs are high and the bureaucracy unnecessary.
The single market worked for us for 30 years. It will again. It really is time for politicians to come clean and talk about a future together. Haven’t we all had enough of their destructive, divisive posturing?