I receive occasional emails from readers pointing out items in the news they think should be added to the dossier and I am of course always grateful for any help. However, I don’t necessarily include any that don’t appear to be genuine Brexit upsides or downsides in my opinion.
Last week an email popped into my Yorkshire Bylines inbox asking politely for me to “Please add the following to your upsides”. It wasn’t easy to spot which upsides were being referred to since the message consisted of a lot of HTML formatting code interspersed with text, making it difficult to read.
I hesitated to click on any of the links at first because I suspected it might be a phishing email, but at the bottom the sender had included a name, which matched the email address, and even a mobile phone number. So I think it is genuine, and I’m sure the sender sincerely believed he was including some upsides.
Now I don’t want to disparage any efforts to balance up the dossier, but I do think it’s worth going through the list, partly to explain why I don’t want to include them all and partly as an illustration of where we are more than seven years after the referendum and almost three years since formally exiting the EU. There is a lot of barrel-scraping here.
As far as I can work out (and it wasn’t easy), here are the ‘upsides’ of Brexit that were sent:
1. Our status has changed from being ‘in the EU’ to ‘not in the EU’
I think this may be a tautology and perhaps an obvious statement of fact rather than an upside and it could equally be thought of as a downside. It’s a bit like Theresa May and “Brexit means Brexit”.
2. We’ve changed or repealed around 1,000 pieces of retained EU legislation
I am not sure this is numerically correct, and I can’t check since the dashboard introduced by Jacob Rees-Mogg showing which EU laws have been ditched has been taken down by his successor Kemi Badenoch.
Whatever the actual number, the EU laws that have been through the culling process are largely expired, irrelevant or inconsequential and cover obscure subjects like Polish canal boats, Greenland fishing grounds and database formats for packaging waste. Others have been replaced by virtually identical UK regulations. I have written about this before here and here.What has happened is some very light pruning of dead wood, there has certainly been no bonfire.
This is the very reason Badenoch herself came in for a lot of criticism about the lack of meaningful progress when she appeared before the European scrutiny committee in June. They didn’t see it as an upside.
The 600 or so to go before the end of the year (the full list is here) is simply more of the same.
3. Changes to employment law could help save businesses £1bn a year
This statement by Badenoch is about consulting business on changes to the law requiring businesses to record working hours. It isn’t known yet what changes will be made. But in fairness, some of the downsides are also about consultations too, so I have added this one to the list of upsides.
It may be that some employees could lose out if their working hours are not properly recorded but judgement on that is reserved.
4. The UK car industry has remained relatively resilient
I don’t think this can be taken as an upside. Has it remained resilient because of Brexit? I don’t believe so, if anything Brexit has made the industry less resilient and added to the uncertainty.
The article in Car Trends that was linked to in the email talks of “potential disruption to supply chains” in the automotive industry and says, “there are still non-tariff barriers, such as customs checks and regulations, that have added new costs and complexities to trade”.
Any resiliency has come at the cost of establishing “new logistics and distribution networks to bypass traditional trade routes between the UK and the EU”.
None of the major car companies as far as I know have cited Brexit as a reason to invest in the UK.
At best you could argue Brexit has made little difference and large firms can easily cope with increased red tape adding friction to supply chains. To claim it has ‘remained resilient’ really can’t justify being considered an upside.
5. We got ahead in the vaccine race
The Guardian article linked to is from 2021 and about securing a supply of vaccines, rather than approving vaccines. Suggestions the UK was able to approve the first vaccine because of Brexit has been debunked many times, not least by the BBC here and covered by Yorkshire Bylines in the Brexit benefit myths.
It’s true the UK was able to sign contracts for the supply of vaccines after rejecting an EU offer in 2020 to become part of a joint procurement scheme, but again this occurred while the UK was abiding by EU law during the transition period. Any EU member state could have done the same as Hungary actually did.
To argue we were able to do this because of Brexit is not true and can’t be considered an upside. Brexit may have made the decision easier or even more logical in light of the fact we were soon to be fully exiting the bloc, but it wasn’t a decision enabled by Brexit.
6. The MHRA to fast-track drugs approved in Japan, USA and Europe
The Economist article which was sent comes from May of this year and suggests that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare-products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will from 2024 ‘fast-track’ approvals for drugs already approved in Japan, America and Europe, which suggests the EU has approved at least some drugs that the UK has not. This seems to be a downside rather than anything else.
As far as other sectors are concerned, the same article says:
“But, in the main, attempts to impose a distinctly British regime floundered: deadlines to impose onerous new domestic approval regimes for cars, food imports and chemicals have been postponed by years, as manufacturers warned that Britain’s small market made the burden of additional bureaucracy unaffordable.”
A downside again, I think?
7. Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision blocked
Again, this is true. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), blocked the acquisition by Microsoft of Activision Blizzard, a publisher of video games earlier this year. The Economist article carrying this report is dated 26 April 2023.
In mid-May, the EU regulator approved the £55bn deal and in October, the CMA followed suit and approved the deal, reversing the earlier ruling.
This came after Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, had declared the CMA decision was “bad for Britain” and that, “there’s a clear message here – the European Union is a more attractive place to start a business than the United Kingdom”.
The Economist also notes comments by James Webber of the law firm Shearman & Sterling, that the CMA is subject to less scrutiny by lawmakers and weaker review by judges than its EU counterpart.
Again, more of a downside perhaps?
8. Britain’s services exports are booming despite Brexit
This comes from an article again in The Economist from May this year asking why Britain’s service exports to the EU are up by 16% whereas goods exports have not regained their level of 2019.
The piece speculates that services firms may have found “ways to ease trade frictions” and points to research suggesting that since 2016 British firms are now more likely to sell through affiliates than directly. It concludes that “such workarounds may not last” and EU regulators may “crack down”.
It also says the extra costs could blunt the competitive edge of UK service companies over time and some may simply not bother selling to the bloc at all.
It seems to me the story implies that service exports may have increased by more than 16% without Brexit, so again not really an upside.
There is also a reference to Britain’s office drones making inroads into some smaller markets, particularly economies with which the country has historic ties such as India, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria. It’s hard to see how Brexit helped since the EU never prevented the UK exporting to those countries in any case.
9. Indian students have more than offset a drop in demand for education from the EU
Again this is true, but the UK has always had the right to attract students from India and elsewhere, although Brexit has introduced new rules, we could have implemented the same rules for non-EU students before Brexit.
It can hardly be claimed as an upside.
10. The amount of fish caught and landed by UK boats has been rising
This is a claim made in December 2022 by Mark Spencer MP as fisheries minister and covered by the BBC in a Verify Report. It is true the tonnage increased from 622,000 in 2019 to 652,000 in 2022, an increase of 4.8%.
However, Dr Bryce Stewart, a fisheries biologist from the University of York, says the government has “overstated the longer term impact” because most of the benefit came in 2021, following the transfer of 15% of the EU’s quota, with much smaller transfers to come up to 2026.
There were also winners and losers. Peterhead and Lerwick gained the majority of the extra fish while ports in north-east England – Hull, Grimsby and Bridlington – as well as in the south-west – Plymouth and Newlyn – all saw decreases in their 2019 catches.
Overall, the report is in my opinion more negative than positive. Chris Ranford of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation said things have been “extremely painful”. Jane Sandell of UK Fisheries, owners of the super-trawler ‘Kirkella’ said they had to make 72 fishermen redundant and Juliette Hatchman of South Western Fish Producers called the sheer cost of all the additional export paperwork “quite eye-watering”.
I would hesitate to describe the modest tonnage increase as an upside related to Brexit, especially as the government’s own figures show in 2016 total landings were 936,200 tonnes.
Moreover, the published data for 2022 says: “UK vessels landed 640 thousand tonnes of sea fish with a value of £1.04bn. Compared to 2021, this is a decrease of 2% in quantity, however an increase in value of 13%. The increase in value is mainly driven by higher fish prices.”
So, that’s it. Out of ten suggestions there is one potential upside which I’ve now added to our list, bringing the total number of recorded Brexit upsides to 34.
What I think this exercise shows is how difficult it is to find ‘considerable’ upsides which is what David Davis promised us all back in 2016.