Why the UK carries much more of the adjustment costs of Brexit than the EU

Last week, almost as an aside to another conversation on Twitter, I noted that the UK was always going to have a much more difficult time of it all with Brexit than the EU because it (the UK) has to build and rebuild a huge pile of government functionality, while the EU just keeps what it had previously.

That’s not the most original of insights, but following a couple of positive comments from people I respect, I thought I’d work that idea up into a thread.

You can read it for yourself, as have rather a lot more people that I initially imagined would be the case.

Interestingly, part of the reason I think I got shared a lot was because people thought it was making a case for the UK not to have left the EU in the first place: certainly that was the tenor of the email that landed in my inbox yesterday evening, which suggested I was ‘going to have to deal with it’.

Regular readers of my work will know that I have indeed ‘dealt with it’ a long time ago. There’s nothing I can see in the thread that says the UK should be either in or out: I’m just pointing out that having decided to leave, the UK will have to carry more of the costs.

Some respondents to the tweets noted that any costs would be outweighed by subsequent gains in economic or political terms and well they might: however, that’s not my interest either. If nothing else, I have no good way to measure out any of these elements, conscious as I am that the politics of this matter as much as the economics.

The asymmetry matters much more when thinking about how it might shape the incentives of the parties in the current Future Partnership negotiations.

The EU has already closed off the most critical elements of its adjustments, through the Withdrawal Agreement, dealing with the direct effects on its members, citizens and finances. The current work on creating a new relationship is important, but not critical.

For the UK, however, its external relations remain much more in flux. Not only is there the UK-EU relationship to resolve, but also a resetting of trade links with the large number of countries that were previously connected via EU-level agreements. Moreover, almost all third countries have indicated that they want to know what the UK-EU relationship is before settling on new terms with the UK, given how this might affect terms of trade.

And that’s even before we get to the huge UK programme of reshoring policy-making, regulation and implementation that is a necessary consequence of withdrawal.

The trap here is to think that because the costs sit very largely with the UK, there is an effective push to secure a deal that keeps those costs as contained as possible. To think that is to forget the past five years of British politics.

Instead, it should really be inviting us to consider how Brexit can be framed as essential to some purpose beyond any intrinsic value: how does it help move us towards a better place?

Ideally, that is a collective process, that builds a strong and resilient consensus around a project of national development that can guide politics and policy. However, that’s a tall order at the best of times. Maybe we might find that the current government is able to articulate something that sticks, underpinned by its large majority, but even that seems problematic while there’s a pandemic going on and a prime minister who doesn’t have a strongly grounded ideological position.

And so we come back to the costs of adjustment, which will only grow if we don’t decide what we’re adjusting to.