Brexit benefits: What are the opportunities Keir Starmer and Jacob Rees-Mogg are talking about?

Here are the main Brexit benefits and opportunities, and whether they are real

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 17 February 2022 09:52 GMT
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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Victoria Jones/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Labour leader Keir Starmer and Tory minister Jacob Rees-Mogg have both said Brexit has potential benefits which the UK could exploit.

The two politicians come from different parts of the political spectrum but seem to agree on this point.

Mr Rees-Mogg was in fact last week appointed minister for Brexit opportunities, and his job is finding new ones.

The Labour leader meanwhile told BBC Radio Newcastle: “I want to make sure we take advantage of the opportunities, and that we have a clear plan for Brexit. That’s what I’m working on.”

What are some potential benefits that the government, and indeed the opposition, have highlighted? And are they really benefits?

Free trade agreements

Container lorries queue at the Port of Dover (AFP via Getty Images)

The most high-profile benefit the government has talked up on Brexit is the ability to sign free trade agreements unilaterally. While Britain was in the EU it benefited from agreements it had negotiated as part of the bloc, but could not do its own.

This sounds positive, but it is less straightforward than it sounds. For a start, as a smaller country Britain has less bargaining power in negotiations than the whole EU. On the other hand, deals can be tailored to the UK and the political risk of another country blocking a trade agreement disappears.

Overall, however, trade experts say the advantages are marginal at best – especially when balanced against the damage to trade with the EU that has been done by Brexit.

An analysis by the University of Sussex Trade Policy Observatory found that the UK's Brexit losses were 178 times bigger than any gains from new agreements, with all deals combined worth less than 50p per person a year.

Some much-talked-up free trade agreements, like the one with the United States promised by Donald Trump, are yet to materialise.

Controlling immigration

Virus Outbreak Britain (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

One argument was leaving the EU made during the referendum was that Britain could "control immigration" and end free movement with the bloc. Whether this is an advantage or not depends on your political point of view.

EU immigration fell substantially after after Brexit referendum, as a result of people not wanting to move to Britain – though it remained positive until early 2020 when Covid hit. Covid has muddied the waters and it is difficult to see what impact ending free movement has actually had.

The cut in European immigration has however had a direct impact in the form of fewer migrant workers, which has led to staff shortages across the economy and some crops going wasted in the fields. Covid has also muddied the waters in this regard and had an impact of its own.

This reduction in labour from abroad does not seem to have translated into generalised wage rises; real wages have been overall stagnant across the economy since the financial crisis in 2008 and are now falling again thanks to inflation outstripping wage growth.

Immigration has fallen down the political agenda significantly since the referendum and polls also suggest most Britons are less hostile to free movement with the EU than is sometimes suggested. A 2020 survey by Focaldata found that 57 per cent of people in the UK support a reciprocal right to live and work in Britain for EU citizens.

There were some suggestions during the campaign that Brexit could see a more liberal immigration policy to the rest of the world in exchange for tightening controls with Europe, perhaps liberalising with India. This however has not come to pass, and in addition it never required leaving the EU - member states are allowed to set visa conditions to third countries as they like. Britain has also never been a member of the common visa policy.

Deregulation

Campaigners say consumers do not want chlorinated chicken from the US (Getty)

Some members of the government, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, have talked up the prospect of removing EU regulations and standards after Brexit.

In 2016 after referendum he told a parliamentary committee that regulations that were “good enough for India” could be good enough for the UK – arguing that the UK could go “a very long way” to rolling back high EU standards.

This approach is not popular, however, and whether low standards are actually a good idea will depend on your political point of view.

The main problem is nobody can agree on exactly what rules need to be scrapped. Labour has opposed changed on workers rights, product standards, and the environment. The government has suggested it might allow US food produced to American standards into the UK, but the prospect of chlorinated chicken has not gone down well.

Other suggestions include the prospect of ditching new EU car safety standards, an idea which has predictably garnered little popular support.

Six years since the referendum the government is yet to explain exactly what regulations it wants to scrap and what the point is.

State aid

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves (Ian West/PA) (PA Wire)

One argument pitched from the left of politics in favour of leaving the EU has been to break free from EU state aid rules. These rules require member states not to favour particular companies when it comes to subsidies.

There appears to be little prospect of the UK making use of these changes, however. Labour, who you might expect to be the party to take advantage of these changes, has talks down the prospect of nationalising public services and says it wants to take a more market-based approached.

Even if this changed, EU rules are also less restrictive than often imagined; Brussels regularly grants exemptions, and the UK has historically made less use of these exemptions than many other big member states like France and Germany.

Using Imperial weights and measures

Marstons saw a fall in sales due to the spread of the Omicron variant over the festive period (Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company/PA) (PA Media)

One Brexit cause beloved of the tabloid press is the reintroduction of older imperial weights and measures. This may not seem important, but judging by the column inches spent on it in some newspapers, it apparently is to some people.

The government has talked about just one possible imperial measure reintroduction so far: that is, the pint of champagne. The measure's proponents argue that it was beloved of Winston Churchill.

Unfortunately, French Champagne makers have uniformly said they have no plans to reintroduce the measure any time soon even if it is legalised.

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