‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’Can’t Reverse What We’ve Already Lost
As the Government proposes new laws to ‘unshackle’ the UK, Sam Bright reviews the fundamental freedoms that have already been lost due to Brexit
The Government has today announced in its Queen’s Speech plans for a ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’, that will allegedly finally liberate the economy in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU.
This legislation has been a long time coming. The idea of casting off the shackles of burdensome EU regulations has been a core part of the Brexiter argument since 2016, and a Brexit Freedoms Bill was promised by the Government in January – pledging to cut “£1 billion of red tape for businesses and improve regulation”.
Such legislation comes on the back of the Government publishing a 100-page ‘Benefits of Brexit’ paper earlier this year – which didn’t mention a single downside of leaving the EU – and appointing Jacob Rees-Mogg as its ‘Brexit Opportunities Minister’, a role still without any formal responsibilities.
‘Freedom’ is an ideological lynchpin of libertarian Brexiters, yet extracting Britain from its closest trading bloc has restricted our freedoms in many crucial ways. Here are just a few.
Freedom of Movement
Ironically, the guiding impetus for Brexit – the reason why a majority of people voted for the project – was to stop freedom of movement between the UK and the rest of the EU.
So, now, rather than having the freedom to live and work with ease across Europe, Brits are limited to 90 days on the continent in any 180-day period, before being required to apply for a visa.
Freedom of movement has also obviously been limited in the opposite direction, with stricter visa requirements – including work sponsorship and an income threshold – for those seeking to live in the UK.
This has limited the freedoms not just of Europeans seeking to work in the UK, but also of domestic businesses and consumers.
Indeed, Brexit has triggered a shortage of workers across the economy. It has exacerbated a shortage of HGV drivers, for example, causing shortages of food on shelves and even leading to a petrol crisis in September and October last year. The problem was so acute that, as of mid-December, military personnel were still being required to deliver fuel to petrol stations.
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More than 35,000 pigs have also been culled in the UK while crops have been left to rot, due to labour shortages, according to a parliamentary report. The report said that, by August last year, there were an estimated 500,000 vacancies among the nation’s 4.1 million food and farming roles.
“The evidence we have received leaves us in no doubt that labour shortages, caused by Brexit and accentuated by the pandemic, have badly affected businesses across the food and farming sector,” it said. “If not resolved swiftly, they threaten to shrink the sector permanently with a chain reaction of wage rises and price increases reducing competitiveness, leading to food production being exported abroad and increased imports.”
Ironically, in the Queen’s Speech, the Government portrayed its immigration policies as “giving the UK the freedom to decide who comes to our country based on the skills people have to offer”.
Students also constitute a notable body of people who won’t be able to take advantage of seamless continental work opportunities after Brexit.
The Government announced in December 2020 that it had decided not to participate in the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme for students and young people.
Instead, the UK has set up its own scheme – Turing – that seeks to provide routes to study in non-EU countries as well as in the EU.
However, the Turing scheme has been criticised for offering 14,000 fewer placements than its predecessor programme, and for providing less financial support for students.
The freedom to trade – a concept encased within the slogan ‘Global Britain’ – has also been a driving force of the Brexit project.
Yet, so far, the UK’s great trade liberation has not materialised. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) says that the impact of Brexit on the domestic economy will be worse than COVID. Indeed, chairman of the OBR, Richard Hughes, said that Brexit would restrict economic growth by twice as much as COVID.
The City of London’s policy chief, meanwhile, has said that the Coronavirus pandemic is masking the economic hit caused by Brexit.
Some of the trade implications of Brexit have been difficult to mask, however.
A myriad of new red tape, caused by Britain’s departure from the single market and the customs union, has hindered the ability of goods to be easily distributed across the Channel. Videos of miles-long tailbacks out of Dover are now commonplace, with a whistleblower at the port saying that 95% of the problems are being caused by “the red tape which is now necessary because we left the EU”.
“The jobs that were taking five minutes can now take over an hour to do,” he told Byline TV. “I’d say my workload has doubled since 1 January this year.”
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Trade is also a diplomatic tool, not simply an economic one – as has been witnessed during Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In mid-March, for example, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss made a speech in Washington D.C., arguing that the UK and the Western world must reduce its “strategic economic reliance on authoritarian regimes”. Trade sanctions have been designed with this in mind – to aid the cause of liberty and freedom in Ukraine.
However, Brexit has pushed Britain further away from the free states of the West.
As Byline Times has calculated, overall UK trade with countries on the Government’s human rights concern list increased markedly, by 36%, from 2015 to 2019. Notably, total UK trade with Russia increased from £10.1 billion to £14.1 billion from 2015 to 2019, while trade with China increased from £58 billion to £86.8 billion – an increase of almost 50%.
Northern Ireland and the Devolved Nations
It is also difficult to dispute that Northern Ireland has seen its freedoms curtailed since Britain’s departure from the EU – with the country’s Assembly now locked in paralysis over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has effectively created a trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland in order to avoid such a scenario on the island of Ireland.
Even former Brexit Minister Lord David Frost, who helped to negotiate the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU, has said that the Protocol is the country’s “most urgent and pressing problem”.
The Economics Observatory has noted additional food costs in Northern Ireland, as a direct result of the Protocol, and points to research suggesting that its long-term cost to the economy of Northern Ireland could be equivalent to 2-3% of GDP – even despite the country preserving its access to the single market.
Meanwhile, the other devolved nations haven’t exactly seen their freedoms burgeon as a result of Brexit. Scotland was wrenched out of the EU against its wishes, 62% voting to remain in the bloc and – while Wales did vote in favour of Brexit – the views of its Government were consistently sidelined during the withdrawal process.
Article 50 – the official mechanism to leave the EU – was triggered without the agreement of the Scottish and Welsh Governments. This was despite then Prime Minister Theresa May pledging that she would first agree “a UK approach and objectives for negotiations”.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 – which instituted the UK’s departure into law – was also passed without Scottish consent. The Institute for Government called this an “unprecedented assertion of parliamentary sovereignty to push through a bill that directly amended the terms of devolution”.