Brexit’s impact is complex and hard to disentangle from other factors. It hasn’t helped issues like medicine shortages, steel jobs, or environmental protection. Evaluating Brexit needs honesty and accuracy despite Brexiter dishonesty. Brexit promised concrete benefits, not just abstract ideas, and has failed to deliver.
I n last week’s blog, I discussed the way that Brexit has embedded dishonesty in British politics. That is an easy diagnosis, but the treatment, let alone any cure, is more difficult, and poses challenges for all of us, including those who are opposed to Brexit.
When the transition period ended, I made a point which now has growing salience, namely that it was going to become increasingly difficult to separate out the effects of Brexit from things which might have happened in the same or similar ways anyway. That isn’t so much about the difficulties of counterfactual economic modelling, which can be addressed, at least in a rough and ready way. It’s more about how particular policy areas are affected by Brexit, given that in many or most cases they have become an amalgam of continuity and discontinuity with EU membership. That problem is compounded by the often complex issue of whether and to what extent, within particular areas, UK policy had actually been a result of its EU membership in the first place.
Honesty, therefore, requires critics of Brexit to be careful in disentangling the impact of Brexit from that of other issues. However, having done so, honesty also demands of Brexiters that they accept how this impact differs from the promises they made.
Of course, there are still plenty of cases where there is no difficulty in identifying Brexit as the sole cause, even if the nature of the effects is more complex to unpick. Amongst current high-profile examples is the long-delayed full introduction of controls on imports from the EU, the next main substantive phases of which are due to begin next week. This has led to warnings of “border disruption” next month, and of further delays, shortages and price rises for some fresh produce and plants when the next stage is implemented at the end of April . (However, as I write there seems to be a possibility of a further delay of some aspects, following a very low-key and unclear government announcement last week of changes to risk categories of many fruits and vegetables, but with the implementation of controls for these products now set for the end of October. Initial media and industry reports are confusing, so watch out for clarification in the coming days.)
Regardless of when implementation occurs, it remains to be seen quite how dramatic or visible the effects will actually be, and this will partly depend on whether sufficient customs and veterinary staff have been recruited, with vet shortages, themselves, being another example of Brexit damage. It is certainly likely that, at the least, as happened in the opposite direction, when the EU introduced its import controls on UK goods, smaller firms will struggle most and, in some cases, simply give up on trade. Meanwhile, larger firms may well adapt to the new processes and absorb the extra costs, but with consequences for prices, the extent of product ranges or the availability of products at particular times. This will apply in various ways both to EU firms sending the exports and to the UK firms receiving them.
Equally, further postponement would bring its own damage, or at least danger of damage, in the form of continuing the increased risk of, especially, importing animal or plant diseases. For, as I’ve explained at length before, these risks have been increased by Brexit, rather than simply being unchanged because ‘the goods are still coming from the EU, and we didn’t have these controls before’. The columnist Simon Jenkins last week suggested that their introduction was down to Rishi Sunak trying to be “macho on Brexit” and that a Labour government should “rescind the controls immediately on taking office”. That’s idiotic , and replicates the idiocy of those Brexiters who think border controls are optional, rather than a necessary consequence of hard Brexit (and, to the extent that the UK has controls on non-EU imports, are ultimately a requirement of WTO rules).
There seem to be many people, not all of them Brexiters, who still don’t grasp these risks, but the government’s own announcement of the new controls makes it abundantly clear that biosecurity is a large part of what is at stake. Yet, astonishingly, the government also plans to cut funding for border inspectors at Dover by 70% from April, whilst moving most checks to a new inland border check point at Sevington, over 20 miles away. The head of the Dover Port Health Authority has said that these cuts will “increase the threat to GB safety by an order of magnitude”, whilst the Sevington plan “is in effect opening a new door. We’re not taking back control of our border, we’re removing the border control”.
This is all squarely down to Brexit, and a direct falsification of all the promises made or implied that a free trade deal would (or even could) replicate the ‘frictionless trade’ and deliver ‘the exact same benefits’ as membership of the single market and customs union. However, other things which are currently on the Brexit news radar are much more difficult to describe in such unequivocal terms.
One example is the shortage of many medicines, especially those used for the treatment of epilepsy and diabetes. This has been widely reported, often with reference to Brexit as one of the causes. Such reports primarily highlight the fall in value of sterling since the referendum, making the cost of imported drugs higher. However, it’s not clear that the shortages are due to lack of affordability so much as to lack of availability and, at least in that sense, it is a global supply chain problem that is also affecting EU countries (though they may be able to protect themselves better through bulk-buying). It’s true that there is a policy to limit the growth of spending on branded drug products, but this was introduced in 2019, when the UK was still in the EU, so that policy isn’t in itself attributable to Brexit, even if it may have bitten harder because of sterling’s depreciation.
It’s also true that a Nuffield Foundation report highlighted possible disruptions to medicine imports because of border controls, but this was in December 2021 and so, although well after the end of the transition period, such import controls had not been introduced and, as just discussed, still have not been. There were also concerns about whether post-Brexit regulatory approvals for new medicines might be slower than as an EU member but, in fact, the government has decided to grant “near-automatic approval” for drugs authorized by EU regulators. This, of course, is in itself an indication of the fatuity of the Brexiters’ ideas of regulatory independence, as I discussed in August 2021, when the idea was being mooted, and again in March 2023, when the policy was announced. But, that aside, it does mean that this isn’t an issue as regards the current shortages.
So in this area, it seems that Brexit is only one, and perhaps not the main, source of the problems. However, it certainly hasn’t done anything to help. Moreover, for better or worse, Brexiter promises to speed up the development of new drugs by removing the “absurd” red tape of the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive have, at least for now, come to nothing, except in the sense that rather than update UK legislation in line with the latest 2022 Directive the UK still operates effectively in line with the previous directive. Moreover, whilst the decline in the number of clinical trials undertaken in the UK began before Brexit, its continuation has been attributed in at least some part to Brexit.
Another topic currently in the media is that of environmental protections in general, and control of sewage discharges in particular, again frequently reported as linked with Brexit. Compared with the question of medicine shortages, this is an even broader policy area, and therefore even more difficult to assess, still less to generalize about. For example, as regards sewage, specifically, a recent policy briefing from the Institute for European Environmental Policy UK (IEEP UK), a respected and well-established sustainability think tank, points out that “there is no divergence (yet) between UK and EU Law relating to sewage discharges”. And, on the other hand, even when it was in the EU the UK was sometimes in breach of EU regulations, suggesting that recent discharge scandals are not simply caused by Brexit .
However, more generally, It seems clear that there are several examples of actual or proposed divergence from EU standards, including passive divergence, none of which would have happened but for Brexit. Whether each and every one of them is also retrograde is beyond my ability to assess, but I don’t think it can automatically be assumed that they are. For example, whilst the relaxation of EU rules on gene editing/ genetic modification, with the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, 2023, is strongly opposed by some campaigners, others see it as a positive development, and it is even possible that the EU will move in a similar direction as part of a drive towards ‘sustainable’ agriculture. (Again this issue was discussed in more detail in a previous post, in February 2022, when the policy was still being developed.)
Nevertheless, looking at the overall picture, a summary report released last week by IIEP UK, whilst recognizing that some areas of divergence are “technical and complex in nature and difficult to assess”, shows “increasing incidences of divergence, some of which threaten to be consequential in their impact”, especially given anticipated changes to EU regulation in 2024. The report also identifies some areas where the UK has “flirted” with not just divergence but regression, including air pollution policy, and areas like chemicals and pesticides where the UK has been slower and less stringent in regulatory change than the EU. So, at the very least, we are a long way from the ‘green Brexit’ that Michael Gove promised in 2017 and 2018.
Steel job losses
The issue of the failed promises of Brexiters is also central to one of last week’s biggest news stories, the announcement of major job losses at the Tata steel plant in Port Talbot. Again this is a complicated story, which, despite some claims, doesn’t come down to being a consequence of Brexit or being nothing to do with Brexit. In the mix are the long-term decline of the British steel industry; the extent to which, whilst in the EU, the UK both did and did not make full use of state aid and other support provisions which as a member it could have done; the extent to which the UK has greater scope for state aid since Brexit, given the Level Playing Field provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and the ways in which since Brexit it has both used state aid and not done so; the impact of not being within the EU-US steel tariff deal; the impact of the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM); and the impact of net-zero policies.
I’ve spent hours last week trawling though media and specialist reports, and I honestly can’t disentangle, or even see how it would be possible to disentangle, these and other issues so as to ascribe what is happening to Brexit, though that certainly doesn’t mean it can be completely separated from Brexit. But what I think can unequivocally be said is that Brexit has not in any way helped the steel industry, and this is where the failed promises made by Brexiters come in.
For instance, in 2016 Nigel Farage said that a vote to remain would mean the end of British steel industry – not quite the same as saying Brexit would save it, but certainly implying that – and Boris Johnson urged steelworkers, specifically, to vote leave, citing “EU rules” preventing cutting “steel energy costs” as the reason. Meanwhile, Michael Gove, speaking directly to a Port Talbot steel worker, again at least implied that post-Brexit state aid freedoms would benefit the industry. And the prospect of such freedoms was certainly central to the Lexiters’ case, something which, even though ostensibly pro-remain, Jeremy Corbyn agreed with, albeit that neither they nor he understood the subject.
I still have a vivid memory of seeing a TV vox pop conducted before, or possibly shortly after, the referendum with a voter in, I think, South Yorkshire. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a record of it, but the interviewee talked about how, before joining the EEC, the area had been dominated by steel and coal industries, and so leaving the EU would bring them back. The reason I remember it is because of the huge anger I felt realizing that decent people like this were being despicably conned, and that even as they held these unrealistic, but perfectly understandable and even noble, hopes, as early as 2012 Brexiters like Patrick Minford were glibly referring to the decline of coal and steel as a desirable template for post-Brexit manufacturing industry generally .
On all of the topics discussed in this post – import controls, medicines, environmental protection, and steel – there is much more that could be said than space allows here. For that matter, those with greater knowledge than me, or who have dug deeper into the details than I have, could undoubtedly identify all sorts of other Brexit connections. It is in the nature of Brexit that it threw so many spanners into the highly complex mechanisms under the legal and economic bonnet of the UK that identifying all its direct and indirect effects is all but impossible, and certainly impossible for any one individual. It’s this, along with the problem of disentangling what is and isn’t a Brexit effect, which makes evaluating it so difficult.
Some may think that such attempts at being fair-minded are misguided, not least because Brexiters have lied so much and continue to do so. Why not just say Brexit has made a mess of everything, and leave it at that? After all, there is a certain poetic justice in doing so when Brexiters spent years ascribing every ill to EU membership. Even so, I think there are good reasons to strive for fairness and accuracy, for two reasons.
The most general one is that the Brexit dishonesty that I discussed in last week’s post isn’t negated, but exacerbated, if it is replicated by anti-Brexiters. Secondly, there is a tactical reason. It becomes very easy for Brexiters to dismiss all the damage they have caused if their opponents make false or exaggerated claims about it. If they can genuinely show that some of these claims are false, it becomes easier for them dismiss those which are true. It also enables them to link post-Brexit criticism to their all too potent pre-Brexit ‘Project Fear’ accusation and, although much of that accusation was false, it’s true that the way that George Osborne, in particular, represented the pre-referendum short-term Treasury forecast gave them unnecessary ammunition. At all events, for me, personally, it is central to writing this column to make it is as honest and accurate as I can .
All of which brings me back to my opening point, and the theme of this post. In some ways, the battle for the post-Brexit narrative that began at the end of the transition period has been lost by Brexiters, as opinion polls attest. But it is a battle which is far from over and, as time goes by, it will change in its nature, as the effects of Brexit become harder to disentangle from other factors. The Brexiters will try to exploit that, to deny or obscure its damage, but that is best countered by working even harder to establish and communicate the reality of what is happening.
Hand-in-hand with that is the need to keep hammering home the more fundamental point that Brexit was not supposed to lead to an endless debate about how bad it has been. It was not supposed to need justification by poring over statistics to declare that, by some dubious measure over some cherry-picked dates, it hasn’t been a disaster. It was promised as something which would make Britain unequivocally and self-evidently better. From that perspective, it’s nothing short of sickening to read how, in 2016, Daniel Hannan described what Britain would be like in 2025 if people voted for Brexit. It’s no good Brexiters constantly (and, actually, inaccurately) saying that ‘this was the biggest democratic exercise in British history’ and then expecting us to forget all those promises.
So in evaluating Brexit, the real test is whether it has delivered these promises – promises of specific, concrete, often economic, benefits, and not simply ‘sovereignty’ as an abstract ideal; promises sold using grotesque emotional manipulation, and made with no suggestion that they would take decades to transpire, or would have any downsides at all.
It is a test which Brexit has already failed, and looks set to go on failing.
 Politically, it is of note that the Labour Party are amongst those voicing these warnings. It is a further indication that, at least, they are serious in intending to seek an SPS agreement with the EU and, unless they are not serious about what would be needed to significantly reduce the border disruption, that implies a ‘dynamic alignment’ agreement as the EU Ambassador to the UK highlighted just last week (Labour are still ambiguous about this, as I’ve discussed in detail previously).
 Admittedly, Jenkins also advocates seeking to join the single market and to create a customs treaty with the EU, which would allow border controls to be dropped, but that does not justify his argument that they should, or could, be dispensed with immediately.
 However, there was a specific, albeit temporary, issue in 2021 about the relaxation of sewage treatment rules because of shortages of chemicals associated with post-Brexit shortages of lorry drivers.
 This doesn’t, however, mean that what is happening to Port Talbot now represents Brexit Britain following the path set out for it by Minford. He was advocating the complete, unilateral, removal of Britain’s tariffs (and, no doubt, though I don’t think he said it here, all state aid), so as to let manufacturing industry sink or swim. That has not happened.
 For those who may be interested, I have written an expanded explanation of this point which was originally going to be part of this post but for reasons of length and focus I have posted it separately.