Brexit non-opportunities

Peers are asked to give speeches at all sorts of occasions.  It’s particularly important for LibDem peers to accept invitations to a range of events while we have so few MPs, to maintain our visibility as a serious political party. So last Friday I spoke at the ‘Christmas Gala’ dinner of a UK bilateral Chamber of Commerce for one of the member states of the EU.

An official responsible for trade policy gave an upbeat presentation of the prospects for UK trade with EU countries.  I followed with a mildly critical interpretation of the situation, mentioning that I was a Liberal Democrat and had been sceptical of the promise of ‘Brexit Opportunities’ from the start, and a promise that the Lords would do everything it could to prevent the forthcoming Retained EU Law Bill from diverging too far from common regulations with the EU Single Market.

I was struck by the response from British business people there.  One rushed up to me after I had sat down to urge me and my colleagues to do everything we could to stop the government from deliberately diverging from EU regulations, as Jacob Rees Mogg and right-wing MPs are pressing it to do.  (I have passed his name on to our fund-raising team.)  Two others told me that their companies had now transferred staff and functions to Amsterdam, in order to operate within the EU Single Market; one added that his company is now paying more tax within the EU than in the UK as a result.  The sense of impatience with the bone-headedness of the Conservatives came across strongly.  Business people, it appears, are beginning to abandon the Conservative Party.

The message for Liberal Democrat activists is clear.  You should be visiting local employers to ask them how their business has been affected by Brexit, and how it would be affected by further barriers to trade with our neighbours created by deliberately incompatible standards and regulations being introduced.  And you should tell them that Liberal Democrats in both Houses will fight hard to limit the damage and bring the UK back to a closer relationship with the EU.  And you should tell the local voters how much the whole fiasco of pursuing the hardest possible Brexit, against the illusory promises made before the Referendum, is now costing local businesses and the national economy.

The tide of opinion is now clearly turning.  The CBI, and the Federation of Small Business, are both pressing the government to ease gradually back towards compatible rules, shared standards and the lowest possible barriers; Sunak’s attempt to mollify them by hinting at something like a Swiss relationship was shot down by the Daily Mail and the Tory head-bangers.  The costs and disadvantages of the Australian and other trade deals that Liz Truss rushed us into are becoming apparent.

Many Tories recognise how much damage hard Brexit has caused.  When I asked a minister in the Lords last week whether the £40 million pounds that the government had paid Bain Consultants for research into ‘Brexit Opportunities’ had been value for money, the laughter swept across the Conservative benches as well as around the House.

We are the only party to have articulated a clear strategy for moving progressively towards a closer relationship with the EU and its single market.  Sunak knows it’s in the national interest to do so, but is prevented by his own party.  Starmer is silent, for fear of offending the older generation of working class voters whom Labour hopes to win back in ‘Red Wall’ seats.  All we have to do is to tell voters, and, first and foremost, employers and employees in companies that trade with our neighbours, that we recognise their disillusion with the broken promises of Brexit, and that we are committed to moving back to constructive cooperation with our neighbours, instead of creating yet more acrimonious disputes.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Massimo Ricciuti 30th Nov '22 - 12:52pm

    Thank you, William Wallace, for your article. We all watch at LibDem party and we know how Liberal Democrat party fights against brexit. Now It’s time to work hard for backing in EU. We all need your efforts to help each other to solve this problem. Thank you, William. And thank you Martin.

  • Peter Parsons 30th Nov '22 - 1:54pm

    “More than 40 per cent of British products previously exported to the EU have disappeared from European shelves since Brexit, new figures show.

    Trade economists trying to assess the effects of Brexit warned in research published on Monday that new bureaucracy was putting off exporters on a grand scale.”

  • Peter Martin 30th Nov '22 - 2:51pm

    “More than 40 per cent of British products previously exported to the EU have disappeared from European shelves….”

    I don’t think this is true of EU exports to the UK. The supermarkets are still full of EU produce. So is the EU applying more stringent import controls than the UK? How does this square with the supposed FTA which was concluded at length with the EU? Is the EU flaunting WTO rules on the imposition of non-tariff barriers?

    If the EU wishes to export to us it has to be prepared to import from us. Or vice versa -depending on how you look at it. International trade is the process of swapping one lot of goods (or services) for another lot. Exports are a real cost to any economy. Currency is the IOU of the issuing country. There’s no point collecting UK IOUs (ie ££) just for the sake of collecting them. The EU is hurting itself by not getting something more tangible in return for the real exports it sends to us.

  • Peter Parsons 30th Nov '22 - 3:19pm

    @Peter Martin, the EU was ready for Brexit, the UK wasn’t (and still isn’t). The EU was ready to undertake post-Brexit checks on day 1. The most recent date I have seen for the UK government to begin undertaking the same post-Brexit checks is late 2023 (the current excuse for not doing them is that it will be inflationary). That is why there is currently a difference.

  • Barry Lofty 30th Nov '22 - 3:52pm

    I have made my feelings about the disastrous Brexit vote on this site many times and on this occasion can only add my support to the words of Lord Wallace, Martin and others who have put the case for rejoining the EU so convincingly.

  • Peter Martin 30th Nov '22 - 4:23pm

    @ Martin et al,

    Of course both sides of the Brexit debate have always been in favour of a healthy trade relationship between the EU and the UK. A FTA agreement has been signed. If this does mean what it says then other countries who do not have such an agreement will have no cause to complain to the WTO.

    There does seem to be a large element of pettiness on the part of the EU countries as the article below indicates. I have even heard reports of Christmas cards being intercepted by EU customs and bills applied especially if they are above average thickness. This is really nothing to do with any requirements imposed by the WTO. Anyone sending family presents to America, Australia, Canada etc this Christmas is unlikely to experience any similar problems. We have sent relatively large value items to family members in the USA and Australia which have all passed through customs without any extra charges being applied.

    I do hope we do not retaliate. I would hope that the EU will get over it in time and we can have a more friendly relationship.

  • Peter Martin 30th Nov '22 - 4:24pm
  • Peter Parsons 30th Nov '22 - 6:07pm

    Perhaps it might help friendly relations if some folks in the UK parliament were not so persistently antagonistic towards the EU. I still see regular anti-EU rhetoric from the likes of the ERG.

  • Michael Berridge 30th Nov '22 - 6:32pm

    William Wallace has made “a promise that the Lords would do everything it could to prevent the forthcoming Retained EU Law Bill from diverging too far from common regulations with the EU Single Market”. This is absolutely the right approach. We may dream of rejoining, we may hope to re-enter the Single Market and customs union, but the most likely way forward is small steps towards partnership with the EU and the good trading relationship which the Leavers dishonestly promised us before the 2016 referendum.

  • @Peter Martin – to answer some of your questions:

    “ is the EU applying more stringent import controls than the UK?”

    Yes. The EU countries are applying full standard import controls for as per WTO regulations for U.K. exports just as it does for those of every other non-EU country. Our Brexiters have consistently refused to do so and are in breach of WTO regulations as a result. The U.K. is therefor completely exposed to any WTO lawsuit from any of the other WTO countries, since there is no defence for failing to apply full stringent customs checks as per WTO rules.

    “How does this square with the supposed FTA which was concluded at length with the EU?”

    It is perfectly “square” with it. An FTA does not abolish any requirement to have full stringent customs checks as per WTO rules. Only a full customs union, like the EU, does that.

    “Is the EU flaunting WTO rules on the imposition of non-tariff barriers?”

    No. WTO rules meant that Brexit would require the imposition of full customs checks between the EU and Brexit Britain. This was repeatedly pointed out during the referendum campaign but a majority of the electorate chose to put their trust in fools and/or liars rather than listen to people who (by and large) actually knew what they were talking about.

  • Judging from anecdotal views encountered and comments n the Guardian and Independent, there ought to be a fair chunk of opinion looking for a more pro European policy than the timid offerings by Starmer.

    LibDems would be wise to push the boat out towards Europe, further than New new Labour are doing, while attempting not to upset the shrinking support and confidence among the Leave lot.

  • I agree with Lord Wallaces article but it would help if the leadership actually spoke out about the negative impact of Brexit and committed to a single market or “Swiss plus” model at least.

    As other posters have said the situation has changed since 2019 and Brexit has lost popularity since then. Why are we scared of upsetting the 34% who still think we were right to leave, it makes no sense?

  • George Thomas 1st Dec '22 - 8:39am

    The UK’s position at time of referendum was choice between i) leaving but without having a plan to do so or ii) staying and seeking reform to make EU better union to be part of.

    “We are the only party to have articulated a clear strategy for moving progressively towards a closer relationship with the EU and its single market.” Undoubtedly a good thing but let’s not pretend the EU doesn’t still need reform otherwise we’re offering as basic a plan as option i) and misleading voters about what is possible on Brexit – the second time they’ll be misled.

  • There’s loads of idiocy going on in many EU countries.

    I know about book – I was in the secondhand trade for over 30 years and in that time sent books to pretty much every country in the world – bar North Korea and Cuba.

    A standard mm 12mo – that’s a bog standard paperback to you – shouldn’t attract any duty anywhere in the world. The book is classed as printed papers. There are some books where the bindings may attract duty, but these ain’t them.

    Italian customs have been trying to levy duty on these. This is in breach of the international postal agreements.

    I’ve never heard of these kind of problems from anywhere else in the world. Sheer pettiness.

  • Peter Martin 1st Dec '22 - 12:20pm

    The anecdotal evidence from many UK residents living in the EU is that we are treated differently. There’s not the same problems with customs entry with other non-EU countries. Where in WTO regulations does it say that customs checks have to take a month or more?

    In answer to Martin, yes the USA does have checks but they are quick and efficient – at least in my both business and personal experience. That’s all that anyone is asking from the EU.

    This tweet in the link below shows the pettiness that many are experiencing. I lived in Australia for a number of years and never had cause to make any similar complaints about Australian customs. Anything sent to us from the UK took between one to two weeks. Australia is slightly further away than France! Is Australia guilty of ignoring WTO rules and regulations too?

  • >This tweet in the link below shows the pettiness that many are experiencing.
    The tweet indicates the sender didn’t correctly fill in the customs declaration and pay the appropriate duty.

    I get similar with goods from the US either having to pay a shipper to do the transaction on my behalf or paying the courier on the doorstep – although finding US businesses that are prepared to export to the UK isn’t easy as many don’t do export…

  • Barry Lofty 1st Dec '22 - 3:45pm

    I have no anecdotal evidence as to whether the EU treats the UK differently to other non EU countries but if they
    are one could not blame them given the anti EU rhetoric from Brexiteer politicians and the right wing press who supported them , after all they did allow us certain privileges not allowed to other countries, trying to keep us onside, I suspect?

  • The will of the people needs to be present not past. At one time we supported slavery and believed we ruled the world. This Conservative mantra will be regretted by them in due course. How often should the will of the people be tested and how? Perhaps we should make it the title of our manifesto for the coming GE.

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