Brexit’s 7 biggest headaches, 7 years on from EU referendum

From NHS staff shortages to export woes, the effects of the 2016 vote are still being felt

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 22 June 2023 22:30 BST

Related: ‘Britain is broke’ and Brexit ‘broke it’, says SNP Westminster leader during PMQs

It is seven years since Britain voted to leave the European Union, and all is not well. For all the fights that have been and gone over implementing Brexit – Article 50, oven-ready deals, hard borders and the rest – the promised sunlit uplands are still not upon us.

Polling by the Independent today shows most Britons now think the UK was wrong to leave the bloc – a major turnaround since the referendum.

Here are seven of the biggest Brexit issues that remain unresolved, seven years after the June 2016 vote.

NHS recruitment dries up

The NHS featured prominently in the Brexit campaign, with the Leave campaign promising more cash for the health service (£350m a week, to be precise) once Britain left.

But the most obvious effect that leaving the EU has had on the NHS is to compound staff shortages.

The Nuffield Trust says the Brexit vote has “exacerbated” long-running workforce shortages in nursing and social care especially.

The NHS has been under more pressure with staff shortages getting worse

Many of the problems are difficult to untangle from Covid-19.

But what is clear is that UK-wide changes in immigration rules have increased costs and bureaucracy for EU health workers, while the NHS has not been able to find enough qualified staff from elsewhere.

As a result, vacancies across the NHS in England have risen to a new record high with more than 133,000 full-time posts unfilled.

Car manufacturers heading for the exit

The private sector has suffered, too; UK car manufacturing, has been significantly hit.

Ford says leaving the single market has introduced “pointless costs,” while Jaguar Land Rover says the new rules are “unrealistic.”

New cars sit at a dockside in Sheerness, Kent

Meanwhile Stellantis, the parent company of Citroën, Peugeot, Fiat and Vauxhall, has warned it might have to move some operations overseas because new bureaucracy makes UK operations unviable.

The biggest issue for manufacturers is so-called “rules of origin” that apply to international trade outside the single market and customs union; these mean a certain proportion of a car's parts have to be made in the UK or EU to avoid tariffs – a headache for complex global manufacturing supply chains such as car-making.

Mobile roaming charges return

Roaming charges were phased out by the EU, making it cheaper to use your phone abroad. But since 1 January 2021, the situation has reversed.

While the four major UK mobile networks all initially said they had no plans to reintroduce charges, this did not last.

Roaming charges are back

EE, Vodafone and Three have now reversed course, leaving only O2 still offering surcharge-free roaming in the EU.

Other interim protections, such as a cap on daily charges that applied until summer 2022, have also expired. Make sure you check with your network before going abroad.

Endless queues of lorries

Queues of lorries and holidaymakers at Britain’s ports have become a familiar sight since stricter Brexit border checks came in, in 2021.

Since the end of the transition period, border formalities take a bit longer, with passports needing to be stamped and questions asked.

Lorries queueing on the A20 to get to the Port of Dover

On the freight side, new trade rules mean that if any of the complex import/export paperwork is not in order, lorries must wait for it to be sorted out.

The result has been bottlenecks in places such as Dover. Airports and Eurostar have also been affected, with long waits now more common than ever.

Surging inflation

Inflation has hit all countries to some degree in 2023, with energy and food costs pushing up prices.

But Britain has found itself an international outlier, with the worst inflation in the G7. Unsurprisingly, Brexit is a contributing factor.

Brexit has hit food imports and domestic production (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Disruption to supply chains, which has increased delivery times and costs, is thought to have had an impact, particularly on food.

But as well as affecting imports, a shortage of seasonal agricultural workers has also restricted domestic supply.

One study from the London School of Economics found that extra Brexit red tape may have added £250 in total to the typical household’s grocery shopping bill between December 2019 and March 2023.

Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney said this week: “We laid out in advance of Brexit that this will be a negative supply shock for a period of time and the consequence of that will be a weaker pound, higher inflation and it will end weaker growth ... there’s no joy in saying: ‘well, we told you so’, because people are having to live with that reality.”

British researchers locked out

While the government has sought to take Britain out of most EU institutions, one it didn’t want to leave was Horizon Europe.

But the UK has been locked out of the €95.5bn science collaboration scheme since 2020, despite universities and scientists saying it is vital for competitiveness and innovation.

The UK wants to be part of Horizon Europe

Brussels blocked Britain’s “associate” participation in the scheme until the Northern Ireland border issue was dealt with but, in spite of the Windsor Framework, the UK remains on the outside.

The latest hold-up is over the price tag, with the EU wanting Britain to pay fees for participation in the scheme during the two years it was not a member; while the government is haggling over the price of entry, top researchers say ministers just need to get Britain back into the club.

Trade bureaucracy

When the Brexit transition period ended, ministers were quick to warn there would be an adjustment period to the new rules – but that problems would ease.

This doesn’t seem to have been entirely true. A study by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) two years after the new arrangements came into force found that 56 per cent of companies whose trading activities are affected by the new rules are facing difficulties importing or exporting goods.

Businesses are facing forms galore

A similar number (45 per cent) are experiencing difficulties in trading services, while 44 per cent of those who need to obtain visas for their staff have reported problems in doing so.

Most of the businesses surveyed were small and medium companies rather than giants such as car manufacturers.

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