Business Brexit blues

Simon Wren-Lewis 29 June 2018

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First posted on: 

mainly macro, 27 June 2018

Project Fear was the device that allowed those arguing for independence for Scotland to ignore the short term fiscal realities,1 and it was the device used by Leave to discount the countless warnings that Brexit could make the UK significantly poorer. The device was indulged by the broadcast media, who now duly quote it back at businesses who warn that jobs are at stake with any kind of hard Brexit.

There are good reasons why so many businesses have finally decided to make their concerns public. They have lost all faith that the government knows what it is doing, and they have recently lost faith in parliament restoring any kind of sanity. Hence the warnings from AirbusBMW, and the Society of Motor Manufacturers. This is no posturing, as figures for car industry investment show. These numbers will only jump back up once Brexit uncertainty ends if the final deal is a positive one as far as car makers are concerned. A UBS survey suggests that car makers are not unusual in this respect. 

So why are firms not excited by the opportunities a Tory Brexit will bring in terms of less regulation and ‘global Britain’? They know global Britain is a myth: they can export perfectly well outside the EU as it is, and they are more likely to get a good trade deal with third countries by being in the EU than outside it. Those who say that a post-Brexit UK could do trade deals tailor made to UK business misunderstand what trade deals are mainly about nowadays. They are about harmonisation of regulations. And if a country is going to harmonise its regulations, it will do this with the EU rather than the UK because the EU is a much larger market.

Which is why the prospect of a regulation-free post-Brexit UK has little appeal to businesses that trade. What business wants is harmonised regulations, giving them less costs and a large market. The EU is really all about harmonisation of regulations. These include regulation on working hours or the environment because all these things are required to get a level playing field for business and therefore a true single and very large market.

As Anthony Barnett in a very interesting essay argues, the sovereignty argument for Brexit involves a huge misconception. What the EU does (human rights aside) is harmonise regulations. Most people, including Leavers, have little problem with that. What Brexiters did was relabel this as giving away sovereignty, which sounds bad. I often ask Leavers if they can name any EU law ‘imposed’ on the UK that they do not like, and I have yet to get anyone to respond with one. “It is the principle”, one said. But their inability to quote an example of loss of sovereignty reveals an underlying truth. The EU is about harmonisation of regulations, regulations that most people have no problem with. 

I do not think this was just a deliberate bit of Leave deceit, although there was plenty of that. I suspect this was also a genuine lack of understanding among our out of touch, privileged elite. Partly as a result, when businesses ask for harmonised regulations in the form of the single market they are nonplussed. Hence the response of the government to these warnings. They include the “f*** business” of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt saying the warnings were “completely inappropriate” because it could undermine the prospects for a good deal! These replies reflect the bewildered fumbling of an elite that thought they were pro-business and suddenly finding that they are doing it considerable harm.

The irony is that any deal that is done will involve the UK still being subject to EU regulations, only without the UK having any effective say in how those regulations evolve. For the leavers who equated regulations with sovereignty, we will be less sovereign as a result of Brexit than we were before. Brexit as a project has failed. We continue with it simply because of a flawed referendum and because politicians cannot admit the truth to save their own reputations and for fear of the reaction of the Brexiter press. 

It should also be the end of Project Fear, for those at least who still have an open mind and who do not believe everything they read in the Brexit press (which I admit may rule out around a third of the UK population). Project Fear, in the two main contexts that it has been used, is equivalent to the claim that we don’t need experts. Just as Faisal Islam reacted to Gove when he first talked about having enough of experts, so other journalists should react when Project Fear is used to bat away major expected costs based on expert analysis. Otherwise we just normalise a kind of Republican anti-science attitude that is now official US policy. 

[1] Although, to save a lot of comments, the term itself was invented by those arguing against independence.

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Topics:  Europe's nations and regions Politics and economics

Tags:  Brexit, Project Fear, harmonisation, EU

Professor, Economics Department and Merton College, Oxford

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