Brexit and the economy: trade, politics and labour


As the UK reckons with the legacies of Brexit, Cyrus Ho examines how the UK has fared over the past few years and the difficulties businesses, workers and the government have experienced.

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Image by Nik Morris


The emotions roused by Brexit in the press often give way to stinging comments. From “the Brexit cult that blew up Britain”, “Tories no longer fit to govern after Brexit mistakes”, to the most recent headline – “‘Rejoiners’ march on Westminster to demand new Brexit vote”, criticism and uncertainty is are flying everywhere. How do the equally strident claims of economic gloom or free trade buccaneering actually develop in the post-Brexit world? Learning about the background and opportunities ahead could perhaps fix the current economic problems facing the UK.

Back in 2016, the referendum that determined Britain’s future took place under the Conservative Party leadership. With negotiations for a deal with the European Union (EU) starting as soon as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty triggered in 2017, plenty of aspirations were expected to be realised soon after Brexit.

In fact, in certain fields there is indeed rapid advancement. For example, autonomous vehicle research has made impressive progress according to the chief of IBM UK, deeming the determining factor to the seemingly overhauled red tapes in the tech industry. It is not impossible that the UK could achieve the predetermined goal to become ‘a global hub for innovation by 2035’, although criteria are ambiguous.

The question worth discussing is, however, whether the good outweighs the bad. According to the previous Cabinet Office’s policy paper outlining ‘how the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU’, economic credibility seemed to be one of the major foci in the pro-Brexit thesis. Considering the post-Brexit regulating system, at least seven bills have already been passed by the House of Commons to fill the legal gap, from agriculture to taxation.

There are drawbacks, however, to establishing a separate regulatory system from other EU countries, creating extra hurdles for importers to meet both places’ standards. Important supplies such as medical-related products now require another rigorous quality control test before they could circulate in the market. This is, of course, reassuring to UK consumers, but it is also a valid concern that the manufacturing industry would start to go downhill shortly should the messy rules and regulations persist, a push factor specifically for many foreign investors.

Tightening immigration control might mean larger autonomy in talent acquisition, but this has inevitably brought us to a critical situation with the EU workers. One such example was reported by an anonymous German woman, who has been residing in the UK for more than a decade and now has a family with four children. She expressed her fear and pressure building up over time as the Brexit deadline approaches. If she had wanted to continue to serve as a key worker in a UK nursery, the only way was to apply for citizenship in an extremely short timeframe, possibly losing her original passport.

As seen, more complicated stories lie beneath the surface of ‘fighting’ for independence, while a knock-on impact on labour supply has almost been the most obvious impact. The fuel crisis in 2021 due to a lack of lorry drivers, previously taken up by many EU citizens, proves that. Do we still regard the EU as a burden instead of acknowledging our reliance on it?

Let us not forget how the EU has played a large part in supporting our future generations. Just to name a few examples, the EU Structural Development Fund from 2014-2020 has sponsored multiple brand-new buildings on the campus of Swansea University. The Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre, which researches a range of diseases, was also subsidised by the EU. In fact, education is just one of many fields that has benefitted from the European Union’s support.

For those interested in climate change, the government pledged that with Brexit, more emphasis would be placed on sustainable finance. Since 2021, two ‘green gilts’ which raised £16.1bn have been used to fund the country’s green expenditures, such as grants for high energy efficiency products and low-carbon technologies research. Meanwhile, up to £100bn of private capital is potentially being driven into the development of renewable energy etc.

These surely are impressive numbers, but considering the timeliness, it’s difficult to assess how much of an impact these investments will have when they are not backed up by a more sustainable financing package. The latest net zero goal for the UK has already been postponed to 2050. However much we acknowledge that Rome was not built in one day, speaking of a goal that may or may not be delivered in decades may be slightly over-optimistic.

The International Trade Secretary did admit that taxpayers are entitled to the rationale behind how public money is spent, implying that when investment in the green industry is compared to people’s livelihood like housing problems, the latter may take priority in government’s expenditures. On the other hand, a marine power system which was invented in Swansea has previously secured up to £15.9m funding from the EU to generate green energy for the Welsh region. This may demonstrate that collective effort from all levels is particularly crucial in the face of global survival issues as such.

Recently, the UK has come so close in striking a deal with India for free trade, one of the significant measures to establish international trade after losing links to other parts of Europe. The market is still relying on the new PM’s autumn financial statement for speculation. However, with the risk of further economic downturn, could we achieve all the policy objectives as planned? The jury is still out there.