Skip to main content

Brexit: Benefits to Economy and Society

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to report to Parliament on the benefits that leaving the European Union has brought to the United Kingdom’s economy and society in the past four years; and if so, when.

In January 2024, my department published an overview of the benefits of Brexit, on its fourth anniversary, to the UK economy. Since the referendum, the UK economy has grown faster than those of Germany, Italy and Japan, and is equal with the French. The IMF is now predicting that the UK will have the fastest growth in the G7 in the next five years. Meanwhile, our exports have reached £870 billion, and we are well on target to reach our overall target of £1 trillion. That growth in trade is greatly assisted by our free trade agreements, now signed with 73 countries globally plus the EU.

My Lords, I am extremely sorry that the Minister’s department gave such little publicity to its fourth anniversary paper. Given that the Government fought the last election, very successfully, on getting Brexit done, and we are now coming up to an election in which they will want to say again that Brexit was a success, should they not be making a major theme of what the benefits have been in a report on the last five years? Does the Minister agree that the public are more aware of the costs than the benefits of Brexit? Good balance in a report to show that there have been at least some benefits might help the Conservatives regain a little support in the opinion polls.

I thank the noble Lord. The major benefit that we must be better at communicating is certainly around our international trade. We all know that when the UK voted to join the Common Market in the 1970s, Europe accounted for one-third of global trade at that point. When we left in 2019 it was 16% of global trade, and the forecast is that it will be 9% in 2050. Putting aside the cultural, political or geographical issues, the British people have made a savvy business decision to tilt to where the trade is—the Indo-Pacific—and we should be better at communicating that to people.

My Lords, what does my noble friend the Minister make of the comments of High Representative Josep Borrell, effectively the EU’s Foreign Minister, who said:

“Europe is a garden … the rest of the world is a jungle”?

Does that not reveal an underlying neo-imperialist current that permeates the European Union in its relations with the world? Are we not better off not being part of this project of white European supremacy and superiority?

I thank my noble friend. This could get quite spicy. I will keep to trade. We have just joined the CPTPP—we need a new name for this trans-Pacific partnership. The last time I looked at the map, Britain was not anywhere near the Pacific Ocean. We managed to get America’s place in this group of 12 countries which have 15% of global GDP and 40% of the world’s middle-class consumers, who all want to buy goods that are made in Britain. We could not have done that deal while we were inside the EU. We are 95% of the way through negotiating with India. We could not have done that deal inside the EU. Trade is tilting towards the East and we need to be where the trade is.

My Lords, there are certainly no Brexit benefits at all for the arts and creative industries. Is the Minister aware that for the musicians touring, despite the good news about tax relief that we have heard today, there remain problems with visas, cabotage, carnets and much else, which need to be sorted? Until they are, our music industry will be struggling.

I thank the noble Earl. We heard in the Budget today the Chancellor identify the creative industries as one of the five key new industries coming through which will power our economy forward. We have in the UK probably the best tax regime for the creative industries. On individual country-by-country touring issues, we are resolving them one by one, to the benefit of our young artists.

My Lords, have any of these trade deals cumulatively made up for the loss of trade to the European Union? Would it not be helpful to publish two columns—one with the extravagant claims made by Mr Johnson and his friends during the referendum and one with what has actually happened?

I thank the noble Lord. I can give some detail on that. If you take out inflation and things such as precious metals, our exports today are in real terms 1% ahead of 2018. After a very difficult five years of world contraction, our exports are, in effect, £870 billion. Interestingly, our economy is 80% services and 20% goods, but our exports are 50/50 because our goods are good and go around the world. The direction of travel is that our exports will be two-thirds services and one-third goods. Our services have gone up by 15% and our manufactured goods have gone down by 12%. Therefore, our services are more than making up for goods. The killer stat is that if you look at our exports, our manufactured goods to the EU are down 13% and to non-EU down 12%, so there is no difference. Brexit is a red herring.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the estimate by Goldman Sachs that British GDP is 5% smaller than it would have been had we not left the single market? The OBR’s figure is 4%. Are the Government contemplating resuming discussions with the European Union to improve our trading relationships with that huge and prosperous free trade area, perhaps in order to get nearer to the arrangements that Norway has with the EU on trading matters, Norway not being a member of the EU either? Our present position is continuing to cost us a considerable amount of economic activity in this country.

As I said, in the last five years we have obviously had Brexit, but also there has been Covid, massive disruption to the supply chain in China and massive contraction in manufacturing around the world. We have Ukraine, energy prices; it has been an extraordinarily difficult period of contraction in all global economies, whether in Germany, France, Australia or the USA. Our economy is now set fair to grow fast. Like my colleague Minister Hands in the other place, I will be working very closely with individual EU countries. We are signing co-operation deals on financial services, we have resumed participation in the North Seas Energy Cooperation, the UK has rejoined Horizon Europe and Copernicus, and we have agreed to extend zero-tariff trade on electric vehicles. There is a whole list of co-operations with the EU that we continue to push through.

My Lords, the Minister, in answering my noble friend, dismissed the role of geography. If you are exporting goods, geography is very important; it is much easier and cheaper to sell to your nearest customers than half way across the world. Here is another list, that the Minister could perhaps consider, of issues that I hear about from people selling goods and the friction they encounter: customs declarations; safety and security certificates; evidence of origin of goods; VAT requirements; health certificates; and chemical certificates. Here is the friction that our people and manufacturers are facing every day. Will the Minister admit this is an issue and will he undertake to try to do something about it?

I thank the noble Lord. Yes, this is an issue, and it relates to 24% of our pie chart of exports; that is, our manufactured goods exported to the EU. Some 41% of our exports go to the EU 27 today, and it is 49% if you make it the Europe 34, so this idea that we do not trade with Europe any more, when half of our exports go there, is simply not the case. On the matter of friction on trade, we are making massive strides with the single trade window, the Electronic Trade Documents Act, the new border target operating model, and the ecosystem of trust. We are moving into a new digital world where goods will move much faster, and we recently had a situation where we sent a batch of valves from Burnley to Singapore without any paperwork, thanks to the Electronic Trade Documents Act.

My Lords, spring is in the air and love is all around. With Valentine’s Day last month and Mothering Sunday this weekend, florists’ businesses should be blooming. Unfortunately, they face additional costs and paperwork on the 80% of flowers that are imported from the EU, due to the border target operating model. The Government’s lack of a plan for Brexit has been particularly exposed when it comes to trade. What steps are the Government taking to avoid further disruption to businesses importing from the EU?

There have certainly been some difficulties and friction in certain areas and sectors, as I have identified. Those are being worked on and will be considerably improved by the new border target operating model, of which more later.