We need to talk about Brexit


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There is still an element of uncertainty across a lot of farm businesses. Actually knowing where we’re going next on this journey is really important.

Brexit is still a very divisive issue. It did split us.

I voted to leave. I didn’t think it would be, naively, this difficult.

What I’d really like to hear is how we can get closer alignment with our closest trading partners.

And that begs a load of questions about sovereignty, which is, of course, what Brexit is all about.

The political incentive to talk about Brexit is zero.

What we need to be talking about is economic growth rather than Brexit. Brexit and delivering the opportunities of Brexit is a key part of getting that economic growth.

Mr Speaker, I love this slagging off behind me.

We’re going into a general election year with it barely featuring on the political agenda.

Our politicians and our business people need to have a grown up, sensible conversation about the challenges and what we’re going to do about them. An election year is a good time to do that.

I am the fourth generation to farm here. My family originally came to Surrey from Devon in 1897. Back in 2016 I accepted that Brussels was not perfect, the Commission was not perfect, the decision-making process was not perfect. When we were faced with Brexit we were faced with a potential cut in the amount of support we were getting through the Common Agricultural Policy via the UK government. Some would say it focuses the mind more on productivity and actually running a business. Others would say it leaves us potentially more at risk.

That safety blanket of Common Agricultural Policy subsidy has been pulled from beneath us. All we know at the moment is that the budget is set for the lifetime of this parliament. And as we stand here today we have no idea how long that parliament’s going to be. I think we need to talk about Brexit in terms of what the next phase is, in terms of the trade agreement.

You know, we export our agricultural commodities out of the UK, the vast majority of it still goes into colleagues’ businesses in Europe. We just need to move forward with an open mind, doing as much trade as we can, co-operating as much as we can, and learning from each other. It’s as simple as that.

Don’t throw away your job. Don’t throw away your children’s future.

My name is Rachel Wolf. I was an adviser to David Cameron during the original Brexit referendum.

This country is aching to move on.

I also was one of the authors of the manifesto of the Conservative party in the 2019 election. From the public’s point of view there is no desire to talk about Brexit and that is why no politician wishes to talk about Brexit.

The slogan of Vote Leave, of course, was take back control. We’ve now got a trade deal with the EU which is tariff free, quota free. We’ve taken back control over our money, control over our laws and lawmaking powers. We’ve delivered what we said we would in 2016.

The barriers that were erected by the trade deal that Lord Frost and Boris Johnson signed with the EU haven’t fundamentally changed in the three years since the trade deal came into force and those barriers still persist to this day.

Don’t you, perhaps…

I think we’ve miss an opportunity post Brexit to actually formally look at Britain’s place in the world.

You know, what are our drivers going to be for economic growth? How can we focus on certain areas that we’re particularly good at? And how can we make sure we have the right regulatory, tax, fiscal, overall policy framework for those areas to make the most of those opportunities?

The Brexit deal that we eventually ended up signing has impacted different bits of the economy in different ways. It’s very difficult for agriculture. It’s very difficult for the creative industries. It’s very difficult for some parts of manufacturing.

My name is Dave Seaward. I’m a founder of 3P Innovation. We make custom automation mainly for the pharmaceutical industries. We’ve lost about half our growth as a direct result of Brexit. We had a huge market on our doorstep, which was the European Union, and we could trade as if it was our local market.

60 per cent of businesses tell us it’s harder now than it was the year before. Brexit hasn’t in any way really helped their business. 50 per cent say that the rules have changed, but they also have kept changing. We’d like to see some real clarity, consistency.

Well, Everything Dinosaur was formed in 2005. We could see a niche online selling dinosaurs and prehistoric animal models. When we left the European Union we didn’t have responsibility any more for CE marking. There’d be UKCA marked products which you could sell in the UK. And if you wanted to sell goods in the European Union you’d have to have CE marking for those items. And then 1st of August last year it got pulled. So that was a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of time just wasted.

So I’m based in the UK being forced to set up an office in Europe to get me, effectively, a postcode so that I can put a CE mark on a machine so that I can sell it, not just to Europe, but to the rest of the world, because those multinational clients demand CE mark because they understand it means our machinery is safe.

One of the ways in which the UK and Europe have diverged is the harmonisation of VAT, but because we’re outside of Europe, in a third country, we have to do our VAT through another company in Ireland, because only a EU company can do EU VAT. So it’s extra work.

If you’re exporting to the EU you have to pay to have a VAT representative in every country you export into. For certain sized businesses that should not necessarily be the case. And actually, we know that works because Norway currently have that agreement with the EU, so we would like to see that happen.

Brexit isn’t a single event. It’s a process. Divergence in regulatory frameworks continue.

Fresh export opportunities…

Kemi Badenoch says it’s false to say Brexit has had a major impact on UK-EU trade. Rishi Sunak claims that freedoms that it enjoys as a result of Brexit make the UK more competitive.

British business will be driven crazy when they hear Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, say one of the reasons Britain’s economy hasn’t shrunk in the way many people predicted in ’23 was because of Brexit. British business has adapted to the new trading relationship, as one would expect, but it’s still far from optimal.

It’s made us farm harder, actually. We’re producing more off this farm now than we’ve ever produced. We’ve sort of got on and adapted. A lot of the machinery we use on farms in the UK is made in Europe and the parts come from Europe. And whereas before we could pick up the phone or send an email and 24 hours later it would land, through no fault of those parts suppliers, because of the different customs regime and the friction of the border, suddenly you’re having to think, you know, days in advance or you’re stood waiting for the spare part, and the machine’s broken, for days, a week for it to land.

Now we have to deal with German rules, Italian rules, Spanish rules. Some of these nations actually have district rules and you’re trying to work out, if I want to send a field service person to Munich is that the same as sending somebody to Madrid? If I send somebody to Madrid, is that actually the same as Barcelona? You have to get different bits of paperwork in place and it’s all friction. What I’d really like to hear is how we can get closer alignment with our closest trading partners.

Until now, the frictions on the border have only been one way. They’ve been from Great Britain into the EU. This is the year, three years after we actually left the EU properly, that we’re going to introduce our own border checks on goods coming from the EU into the UK.

And if you’ve got particularly – very important nowadays – just-in-time supply chain practises, you want to be absolutely confident that bureaucracy is not going to get in the way.

If you’re a small business importing there’s a real concern that your business partners in the EU will just basically think it’s not worth the effort and go and sell their goods elsewhere. If you’re a large business that’s less of a concern, but what you are concerned about is, when your lorries are coming over the border, if you’re stuck behind someone who hasn’t got the right paperwork, if the new import regulations aren’t working smoothly and there are delays at the border, it will add time, costs, and that will certainly see upward pressure on inflation.

The whole point about Brexit was taking back control. Conservative Brexiteers would differ to where, perhaps, Labour Brexiteers were. The whole point is that once you’ve left the EU then it is up to British people to elect a government that reflects their own priorities and that government can then implement the Brexit vision, if you like, that it wants.

Rejoining the single market and the customs union are, I would say, off the agenda at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve things.

If you take a divorce analogy, the two partners have stopped throwing plates at each other and are now talking in a slightly cold way about sorting out some of the stuff that has to be resolved. And Rishi Sunak, to his credit, has addressed. The Northern Ireland trading dispute was sorted out. The Horizon science Ppogramme, which Britain has now been readmitted to, as well, the government junked the proposal to have a bonfire of EU regulation with all the rules automatically expiring, something which was driving business crazy because of the uncertainty that was going to arise.

There are pragmatic, sort of more flexible things we can put in place.

The first thing you could do is start to align in various key sectors of the economy that are important for our goods manufacturers. Now the important thing to remember is that alignment doesn’t get you access. Even if you have the same rules, you still have to show up at the border with a piece of paper that shows you followed the rules. And that is cost and friction. That makes it harder to put the UK in your supply chain if you’re an EU business. But nonetheless, you could do that alignment unilaterally, just on the UK side, and that would make it easier for business.

I think for the Conservatives it’s very difficult to say that the UK would just remain aligned with evolving rules that are drawn up by the EU. I think for Labour there is a sense, talking at least to frontbenchers privately, that they want to strip out the ideology from some of these issues. They want to make pragmatic choices about when to diverge and when to remain aligned. And I think they think they’ve got a little bit more manoeuvre room to do that.

What we’d say to the next prime minister is: probably number one ask would be the Veterinary Agreement. It’s food and drink.

You reduce the number of checks you require on foodstuffs and animal products coming across the border and some of the areas which are most affected by the delays.

The New Zealand Veterinary Agreement just reduces the frequency of checks at the border. The Swiss agreement reduces the need for checks at all. That’s the one, the really deep one, that would make it much easier for our supermarkets and our traders to trade with Europe. The challenge is it will require high levels of rule taking and having, essentially, no say at the table that makes the rules.

We would be pretty dumb as a nation to suddenly change our rule book and throw away, for example, our lamb export trade. So you’ve just got to accept, I think, as an inevitability that you perhaps should look at something like the Swiss model and we are going to have to align our regulations. And the idea that, oh, yes, we’ll become rule takers: well, it’s about give and take, isn’t it?

Giving away sovereignty to reduce border frictions is an extraordinary notion. It’s not an approach adopted by major countries in the world, let alone a G7 country, so why are we thinking in this extraordinarily sort of craven way? I just think it represents a failure of analysis of the opportunities for the UK.

The idea of a complete divergence of our trade policy from our European colleagues is an utter myth. They are our biggest single export customer of what we produce here. We’d be utterly crazy to rip up the rule book. Why would we want to be in a race to the bottom to compete against them on standards? We utterly need to defend the standards that we have here – the environmental standards, the animal welfare standards. We have some of the highest in the world. And the people that want to buy that product off us recognise that, which is why they buy the product off us.

What you’re seeing now is the EU creating its carbon tax. That means when you import something into the EU you have to show how much embedded carbon is in that item in order that you don’t undercut the green drive in Europe.

You had a toy manufacturer that had steel parts in their toys. They now have to fill in paperwork to say how much emissions are in that steel. I mean, they don’t even understand what that means, never mind how to do it.

The UK could decide that it’s going to synchronise its carbon markets and its carbon border taxes legally with the EU.

I don’t think that the public are going to be up in arms because we have joined the EU’s carbon trading framework.

It could do a youth mobility deal. So 18 to 30-year-olds can come and work, say, for two or three years in the UK and vice versa.

Students want to be able to do exchanges. Obviously, the UK is no longer part of the Erasmus scheme. It has its own alternative. There have been claims that doesn’t work as well.

They could do a professional mobility arrangement. Make it easier for our professionals to come and work in each other’s company.

So we would like to see mutual recognition of qualifications and more flexibility in the time that people can stay in different countries.

Within the bounds of remaining outside the single market and remaining outside the customs union, there’s only so far that any changes can go. Frankly, it amounts to fiddling with the fringes of the agreement that we currently have.

YouGov, which keeps a tracker of the most important issues to the public, looks at it by party, as well, and it shows that for Conservative voters immigration was the number one issue. Immigration is something people associate with Brexit.

Good morning.

That is a problem for Rishi Sunak when there’s still 29,000 people who came via small boat last year. And of course, legal net migration at record numbers.

When political scientists look at why people voted to leave the EU, Leave voters thought mostly it would be a positive effect on the economy, it would help the UK control immigration, and they also thought it would improve the UK’s ability to govern our own affairs – to give back control to the UK. Even though Leave voters acknowledge that the impact on the economy has not been positive, that in fact immigration has not at all been brought under control, they still are attached to the idea of Britain governing its own affairs.

When it comes to the issue of migration, of course we took back control. And since we left the EU the government has had control over that policy area. So really, they need to be held to account for that, for their performance in that area.

There’s a review process built into the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed by Boris Johnson that will take effect at the end of 2025.

Keir Starmer has said he would like to use the review to actually start a bit of a renegotiation of terms. It’s really questionable how much substance there would be. It’s a review, it’s not a renegotiation, but it would signal a direction of travel if he talked up the chances of closer alignment.

There are many in Brussels who say, look, we’re viewing this as a kind of a brief technical exercise to iron out blips, not a fundamental renegotiation of a matter, you know, we broadly consider settled.

One of the things that most irritated the European Union, it’s fair to say, was this idea that Britain was trying to cherry pick and to trying to have all of the upsides of membership of the EU without what the electorate saw as the downsides. For example, free movement of people.

The only way that someone like Keir Starmer could talk about Brexit more honestly is if he was also willing to say he was going to do something really very substantial about it. Not very much is on offer in terms of minor tweaks or completely bespoke renegotiating the deal. Doing something serious about it would be massively re-entering the EU in some form and he’s not willing to do that because he doesn’t want to divide his electorate.

Brexit, per se, is way off the list of voters’ top priorities. The economy, miles ahead, is the most important issue, followed by the health service – the state of the health service – followed by migration. And you could say that Brexit plays into all of those things, but the public aren’t necessarily making a link, for example, between Britain’s sluggish economic performance and Brexit because they’re not being invited to by the politicians. It’s not part of the daily political discourse and so the issue has dropped considerably off the political agenda.

As we start this election year, Labour is an average of 18 points ahead of the Conservatives. It’s looking like the likeliest scenario right now that Keir Starmer will be headed into Downing Street.

What an incoming Labour government would do would be to make Brexit work.

‘Make Brexit Work’ is a way of trying to argue to the voters we won’t reopen this can of worms which divided the country.

Keir Starmer and Labour have to tread a very careful line. For a start they always call it the Tory Brexit. They try and pin some of the ways that it’s not working well on the Conservatives.

Look, all the main political parties, with the exception of the Scottish National party, don’t want to talk about Brexit. All of them, for a start, know that the country has been through a psychodrama that they don’t want to revisit.

It splits both parties. It’s not a simple party issue. If you started raising the problems, some would obviously come along and ask you, well, so what are you going to do about it?

Labour’s broad strategy, which is not to say anything about anything, is working just fine for them. Why mess with it?

He doesn’t need to take risks. The polls say he’s going to win anyway.

More and more people have what we call ‘Bregret.’

There’s some bias remorse here going on. And you see that the graph showing those who think it was a good idea and those thought that it was a bad idea has widened.

People don’t think, on the whole, Brexit is going well. And that’s true of Remain voters, who’ve never thought it was going well, but it’s also true of Leave voters. Only one in five think that Brexit is going well, but they don’t want to reopen this.

Let’s get Brexit done, my friends, and get on with our project.

The reason that ‘Get Brexit Done’ was the slogan in 2019, not ‘Make Brexit Work,’ was people mostly just wanted to stop talking about it.

We asked both Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak if they wanted to appear in this video and both declined.

The worst thing that could happen to this country is for those in power not to have an open discussion about the new way of working with Europe. If we’re to grow our business and make money and therefore pay more tax to help everybody else, we need people to understand that the European Union is still a very important business partner for us.

It’s clearly hurting business and business drives our economy forward. Everybody wants growth, but I’m not sure the government, or the future government of whatever hue, is saying anything that says they want to make Brexit work.

It needs to be talked about to give confidence to the rest of the world and Europe that we can carry on trading.

For business, Brexit is the elephant in the room.

Even the most committed Brexiter would find it quite difficult to say that it has worked as promised. We were going to be global Britain. We would find huge opportunities in the rest of the world, liberalise our economy in all sorts of wonderful ways which will unleash dynamism and entrepreneurship and innovation.

Singapore on Thames, a swashbuckling nation really divorced from our European Union partners.

The Singapore example is relevant. We can see those upsides if we got behind it and moved quickly.

Some of the people who campaigned for Brexit wanted to move to a more free trade, more deregulated, lower tax economy, and they haven’t got any of the things that they wanted. The pitch to the voters was we will reduce migration, we will have more money for public services, and you will have more control. The public don’t want Singapore on Thames.

Rishi Sunak would argue that there are benefits that Britain can exploit and will exploit from being outside of the European Union. There’s a good story the British government has to tell on the development of the tech sector and the life science sector in the UK. And if Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, was here or Rishi Sunak was here they would tell you. You know, we should end this narrative of declinism. And there are some advantages from Brexit – the ability to set your own rules. Rishi Sunak would cite freeports, as well.

We become member of the success of an organisation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We have a deal with Australia and New Zealand. And unfortunately, on the trade deals, the really big ones, US and China are out of reach.

It seems like the government’s making good progress on the India trade deal. When it comes to the US, the government’s made some progress in terms of having individual trade deals with individual US states and these shouldn’t be sniffed at. There’s talk of a sort of trade deal with California.

If you’re an investor and you’re looking at the UK on a seven to 20-year horizon, what you see is regulatory uncertainty. The function, I think, of the British state trying to find its feet, having lost the regulatory guardrails that came with being a member of the European Union where, like it or not, a lot of regulation in a lot of areas of commercial life came down the pipe from Brussels and we enacted it into UK law. Those guardrails have gone. We’ve taken back control, but that taking back control creates uncertainty and business doesn’t like uncertainty.

Farming is a long-term business. It’s not something you do month-to-month. It’s something you plan years in advance. In the UK now, post CAP and EU, we have our own system. But remember, agriculture in the UK is a devolved matter. There is still an element of uncertainty across a lot of farm businesses when it comes to support. In those devolved nations it’s a hugely uncertain time for those producers to actually work out what they’re going to be farming, what they’re even going to be doing.

We need our politicians to come and meet business, to come and talk to business about how we can fix the challenges that Brexit has handed to us.

You’re, obviously, particularly good on services, particularly good on life sciences. We’ve got a great tech sector within the UK. Obviously, we’ve got a great financial services sector within the UK. I think it’s worth looking at all of those areas, one by one, and working out what more can be done in those areas to make sure that they are the most attractive destination possible for those sectors economically.

If you look at volumes, you’ll see in lots of areas volumes haven’t recovered. And you’d expect them, if we hadn’t left the EU, to carry on growing. So if you look at UK exports to Germany and German imports from the UK, and then you compare them with Germany’s trade relationships with the rest of Europe, you’ll see the UK sliding down Germany’s list of trade partners.

What do we want?

Brexit!

When do we want it?

Now!

People want politics to calm down. They don’t want the division and toxicity which split political parties. It split the country. It split families apart.

I voted to leave. I probably do regret it, the way it’s turned out. I didn’t think it would be, naively, this difficult, this much more red tape when there was supposed to be less. If there was another referendum tomorrow I would seriously consider whether I would vote the same as I did last time.

Well, I voted to remain. I do get why lots of other people voted the other way. And it’s great having trade deals with Australia. That’s really, really good for lots of businesses, I’m sure, but for us, often the dinosaur model inside the box is worth less than the postage costs to get it to Australia. It’s just geographically too far away for us really to benefit from that.

The Johnson government was desperate to get a trade deal or two trade deals over the line and so the Australia and New Zealand deals were literally pushed over, even though our trade with Australia, as much as we love our Aussie cousins, is next to nothing. We are totally exposed there. I think the biggest of all the potential threats to UK farming at the moment is the way that those New Zealand and Australian trade deals sit and the potential access they have to our market.

Keir Starmer has made it clear he doesn’t want to go back into the single market. He’s also said that he doesn’t want Britain to diverge from the European Union. He doesn’t want Britain to undercut the EU on labour standards, environmental standards, food standards, so there is a big call for him to make. The public might be slightly irritated if he goes back to Brussels and negotiates something he hadn’t talked about in detail in an election campaign. But frankly, British politics is littered with people doing things that they never actually promised to do.

Don’t forget when Blair and Brown came in they also didn’t give many detailed promises. And some of the biggest things they ended up doing, like the independence of the Bank of England, they didn’t talk about at all.

What I would like both the government and the opposition parties to talk more about ahead of the general election is their plan for growth. Having brought powers back to the UK, it’s now up to the UK government, or the government after the general election, to determine where else they may like us, a sovereign country, to deal with other countries.

If we’re talking about carbon trading, the degree to which food standards are aligned, I think the public neither know nor care at all. So I think it’s going to be very easy to align to certain standards in the EU. I don’t think we should be naive that we can do lots of things by stealth that totally remove the fundamental trade-offs and questions about Brexit.

Brexit is just one of many things they don’t want to talk about. What are they going to do about education? What are they going to do about the health service? How are they going to fund social care? Are they going to be able to build lots more houses? Where? Are we going to have to raise taxes? And where? They don’t want to talk about any of this. We don’t want to discuss the biggest issues facing the country in the year of an election. Nobody wants to discuss them. That’s pretty disturbing if you want to believe in democracy.



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