On 18 November a petition was launched, calling for a public inquiry into the impact of Brexit. The text of the petition reads: “The benefits that were promised if the UK exited the European Union have not been delivered, so we call upon the Government to hold a Public Inquiry to assess the impact that Brexit has had on this country and its citizens.” At the 10,000 signatures threshold the government responded, but observers have been quick to highlight some fundamental errors in the response.
At this time of writing, the petition has had over 80,000 signatures. If and when it reaches the 100,000 threshold, the government will debate this in parliament. So before this happens, it would be useful to look at the claims made in the government response, because they’re not all as accurate as one might hope.
Democratic choice of the British people
The government response starts by saying it “does not believe the UK’s departure from the EU to be an appropriate subject for a public inquiry”. Three paragraphs are dedicated to explaining the parliamentary reporting structures and sources of information that are already in place that, in the government’s view, make further scrutiny unnecessary. The point, however, is that a public enquiry would have a much higher public profile. To an extent, the government can control the scrutiny process in parliament. But a public enquiry would absent government interference.
The government then goes on to reiterate that the decision to leave the EU was the result of a “democratic choice” of the British people.
As has already been pointed out on many occasions, while the referendum was “democratic” in that we were offered a vote on whether to leave the EU, this result was advisory only, and parliament was under no obligation to heed that advice. Further, the question put to the people was a simple in/out choice, with no information about how that might happen, whether the UK would remain in the single market and customs union, and what impact this would have on our economy and the political situation in Northern Ireland, for example.
In fact, a High Court judge has since ruled that if the referendum result had been binding, thus mandating the government to take us out of the EU, then the courts would have had to set that decision aside due to the number of flaws in the process. So, while it was certainly a “choice” for the British people, it was ill-informed and far from democratic.
UK-EU institutions functioning as intended
The response goes on to say that “UK-EU institutions are functioning as intended”. The ‘functioning’ part of this claim is a misrepresentation of the malfunction that we have had in the last two years. Dozens of examples present themselves to prove this a lie.
An outstanding case in point is the new need at UK ports to establish customs posts and facilities for carrying out checks in imported livestock and animal products – full sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) import controls. Back in March 2021 the Guardian reported that construction of the required facilities was way behind schedule: “Pressure is building on ministers to push back their deadlines, and set out measures for scaling back controls” ran the article.
Six months later, the Daily Mail reported: “Ministers today announced further delay to the introduction of customs checks. New checks on goods coming from the EU to the UK had been due from October 2020. [These] will now be phased in across 2022 as ministers try to avoid further disruption.”
By April 2022, the Brexit commentator Chris Grey was noting that the government is “considering further delaying, or even abandoning, the planned introduction of full Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) import controls on goods from the EU”.
In abandoning these checks, the government is potentially exposing UK consumers to ‘dodgy’ food imports from the continent. It’s hardly ‘taking back control’ and it’s certainly not evidence of the UK-EU institutions functioning as intended.
Blaming the global economy
The government asserts that, “The global economy faces significant headwinds. Since 2020, businesses have had to overcome the COVID pandemic, global supply chain disruptions, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is challenging to disentangle definitively the impact of these global factors from the long-term effects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU”.
Whilst it might be ‘challenging’ to crunch the numbers and separate out the particular impact Brexit has had on the UK economy, econometricians are more than up to the challenge. In fact, many have already taken the time to research this and have presented their findings in quantifying the Brexit effect.
In its November 2022 ‘Economic and Fiscal outlook’, the Office for Budget Responsibility crunched the numbers and calculated that Brexit has had a “significant adverse impact on UK trade”. The OBR is funded by the Treasury to give economic forecasts based on independent analysis of public finances. It estimates that Brexit “will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15 per cent lower in the long run than if the country had remained in the EU”.
The government therefore cannot hide behind ‘global factors’ and challenging economics when it comes to its reluctance to publicly quantify the impact Brexit has had on our economy.
Brexit agreements also “broadly functioning as intended”
The suggestion that the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement are “broadly functioning as intended” is perhaps the most barefaced of the lies embedded within the government response. The Northern Ireland protocol offers the clearest evidence of this, having created a border in the Irish Sea, effectively separating one part of the United Kingdom from another. A succession of government ministers has since tried to deny, undermine, overturn or rewrite the details since its inception.
This constant wrangling and bad faith has soured UK-EU relations, one consequence of which is Brussels holding back from confirming that the UK can remain part of the Horizon Europe scientific research programme. Perhaps the government was relying on the word ‘broadly’ being taken in its narrowest possible sense.
Trade, tariffs and quotas
The government states that the trade and cooperation agreement is “the world’s largest zero tariffs and zero quotas deal and the first time the EU has ever agreed such access in a free trade agreement”. However, as EU members we already had a zero tariff and zero quota ‘agreement’, so the new arrangement isn’t an improvement. In fact, with all the barriers now erected to trade and the movement of people, goods, capital and services, the deal we now have is significantly worse than before.
In the next part of the response, the government claims to be “opening new opportunities for UK businesses across the globe” having “secured free trade agreements with 71 non-EU countries”. But analysis shows that the great majority of these 71 secured agreements are simply a ‘roll-over’ copy of the deal we already had with these countries as a member of the EU. So far these ‘new opportunities’ are tenuous.
One new deal though, is the one we’ve struck with Australia, which economists have calculated will eventually add 0.08% to UK GDP. The deal has, according to BBC News “been savaged by former Trade Minister George Eustace”. Eustace, who helped secure the agreement, told a Commons debate that it was “not actually a very good deal for the UK”. UK farmers have been up in arms about the deal which is harmful to their interests – with the lack of safeguards on food standards and animal welfare, and the lack of reciprocity of benefits. Never mind the carbon footprint of flying all the beef and lamb halfway around the world.
Foreign direct investment
Finally, the government highlights the recent increase in foreign direct investment (FDI), which is a “key driver in productivity and innovation”. However, it cherry picks the particular statistic it chooses to quote, saying “inward FDI stock increased from $2.2tn to $2.6tn in 2021”. In using the ‘stock’ figure (value of foreign-owned assets held in the UK), rather than the increase in investment (known as ‘flows’), it misrepresents the true picture.
The most recent data in the House of Commons Library relate to 2019 and show:
“In 2019 the value of foreign direct investment into the UK, i.e. inward flows, into the UK were worth £35.6 billion, down from £65.9 billion in 2018”.
Since its implementation in 1992, UK membership of the EU single market had been the cornerstone of FDI into the UK. Firms such as Honda would invest here in order to have tariff-free entry into the EU and also to enjoy huge economies of scale. But that inward flow of investment has dramatically reduced.
Economists at University College London and the LSE initially predicted that leaving the single market would cut the inflow of FDI by a quarter. In October 2020, they revised their estimate upwards to a 37% reduction, warning that “with Brexit we estimate a significant and substantial decrease in FDI”.
And so it came to pass. Brexit has made the UK economy a far less attractive one in which to invest.
Integrity at the heart of government
The current school curriculum stresses the importance of ‘fundamental British values’ for our school children and college students: democracy, rule of law, respect and tolerance, individual liberty.
When a government in an official document produces a statement that is as tendentious and deliberately misleading as this, one begins to wonder whether the government itself has any respect for British values.