Wednesday 28 December 2016

Hard Brexit Benefits? Change Britain’s £24 billion of unicorns

Professor Steve Peers

On Boxing Day, the pro-Leave group ‘Change Britain’ produced a ‘report’ (actually a press release with an annex) claiming £24 billion worth of benefits from a ‘hard Brexit’ – leaving the EU without participating in the single market or customs union. This claim was widely repeated uncritically by the press – although a later critique of the economics by Jonathan Portes was published, and the economic analysis in the report was also fisked by Sam Bowman.

Their comments cover a lot of ground, but it’s worth standing back and looking at the report as a whole – and at how poor the debate over Brexit has become.

The report produces its £24 billion sum from three sources: a) no further contribution from the EU budget; b) future trade deals; and c) cutting back ‘red tape’. Let’s look at each of these in turn, and then note what the report neglected to mention.

EU budget contributions

The report starts with the UK’s contribution to the EU budget: £19 billion if the UK budget rebate is not counted; £14 billion if the rebate is taken off; and £10 billion if the amount spent from the EU budget in the UK (on things like farm subsidies, research and regional development) is deducted. Change Britain accepts that the possible savings are £10-14 billion.

So this necessarily admits that the £19 billion figure – which was the basis for the £350 million/week number ‘on the side of the bus’ during the referendum – was a lie all along. It was a lie because as I point out here, with further details and links, the rebate money is never ‘sent’ to the EU, and the UK has full control over how that rebate money is spent and whether the rebate is retained in future.

Starting by admitting (albeit only indirectly) that they previously told a huge lie is not a good beginning for the report’s authors, since it puts the credibility of anything else they say in question. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and examine their other claims separately.

Cutting back ‘red tape’

The report estimates possibly several billion pounds savings from scrapping some EU laws – concerning the issues of air pollution, animal welfare, data protection, GM foods, chemicals regulation, air passenger compensation, battery pollution and company law. These estimates should have been accompanied by numerous health warnings.

First, as Portes points out, these estimates (and the trade estimates), taken with the estimates on contribution savings, mix up several different things: public finances and business costs. Adding the numbers together is economically incoherent.

Secondly, most or all of the ‘red tape’ referred to has a non-economic value: many people prefer cleaner air, more privacy and better treatment of animals, for instance, quite apart from the impact on GDP. There may, in any event, be indirect economic costs from pollution and less secure data, among others.

Thirdly, in some cases there may be savings to business but not the overall economy. Take air passenger compensation: if passengers are not compensated for delayed flights, the airlines save money – but passengers no longer have that compensation money to spend. True, airlines might pass their savings on to passengers in general – but still the passengers who previously received the compensation money will no longer be getting it. Either way, how would the overall economy benefit? The same goes for cuts to workers’ holiday pay and other worker benefits that business groups sometimes campaign for (though not on this occasion): cuts will save businesses money, but how will the corresponding cuts in workers’ spending power make the economy as a whole better off?

Fourthly, some of the laws concerned are related to market access to the EU – most obviously, the biggest proposed saving, data protection law. As I discuss here, EU data protection law limits data transfers from non-EU countries without an ‘adequate’ level of data protection. Scrapping that law (which would be complicated anyway by the right to privacy in the ECHR and the separate Council of Europe data protection Convention) would mean limits on market access to the EU. This would surely have an impact on the economy. 

Future trade deals

The report claims that the UK would generate exports to non-EU countries by signing its own trade deals. It calculates these increased exports by taking EU estimates of the trade effect of new deals with certain countries and assuming that the UK would benefit from 15% of that increase, because the UK has 15% of the EU’s trade with non-EU countries. As Bowman points out, this is nonsense: the percentage of EU trade with non-EU countries which is held by the UK varies widely and depends on many factors.

Moreover, country where the biggest possible trade benefit exists in the ‘asked for a trade deal’ list – Korea – already has a trade deal with the EU, under which UK trade has already increased. (The EU document which the Change Britain report links to even refers to the EU/Korea deal as being in force already. Change Britain either a) did not read this document – which it uses as a key source – and is moreover ignorant of the EU/Korea deal generally; or b) it is simply telling a blatant lie.)

So while it’s theoretically possible that the UK could sign a better trade deal with Korea than the EU did, the benefit of that deal would not be anything like the £25 billion claimed. Certainly, the report provides no evidence of this. Indeed, the UK will be worse off re exports to Korea after Brexit unless it convinces Korea to agree to a UK-only version of the existing deal.

Moreover, several other countries referred to in the report have agreed a trade deal with the EU which is not in force yet: Canada and two ASEAN states (Vietnam and Singapore). Others are negotiating with the EU (USA, India, Japan, Mercosur, several other ASEAN states). The report’s estimates could therefore only be valid if (a) the EU trade deals agreed or under negotiation are respectively either not ratified or not agreed; and (b) the UK is able to negotiate trade deals with those states.

Note that trade deals are not that easy to negotiate or ratify: the US has also had trouble doing a trade deal with the Mercosur states in South America, and the Change Britain report itself notes that the trans-Pacific trade deal might not be ratified. The report also fails to refer to the obvious increase in imports from the countries concerned that would follow from such trade deals. Finally, it one reason there is no EU/India trade deal is a dispute between the UK and India during the talks. Obviously Brexit will not solve that problem.

In any event, if the UK stayed in the single market but fully left the customs union (like Norway), it could still sign its own trade deals with non-EU countries. 

Costs of leaving

The report says nothing about costs of leaving the single market – estimated at 4% of GDP by the IFS, for instance. Maybe those forecasts are incorrect, but the Change Britain report doesn’t even acknowledge their existence, never mind try to rebut them. In practical terms, for instance, how much will it cost to hire extra customs officers after leaving the customs union, or extra border guards and other immigration staff after ending free movement of people? In Change Britain’s fantasy world, these people must be invisible, or work for free.


An interesting coda to the Change Britain report: late last night, Michael Gove, the head of the official Leave campaign, went on Twitter to debate with Jonathan Portes about it. Portes repeatedly asked Gove to confirm if he had read the report, and Gove repeatedly avoided answering. Instead he demanded Portes first tell him how he voted in the referendum. How is that relevant to a debate over the issues?

And how can Gove assert simultaneously that he is certain Brexit will be economically beneficial and sneer that he is tired of ‘expert’ economic forecasting? The Change Britain report – or any other economic assessment of Brexit – necessarily involves making some hypothetical assumptions. The alleged ‘savings’ from red tape reduction and new trade deals both rely on such assumptions. So Gove is in effect taking the effect of Brexit on faith, assuming without evidence (since he won’t debate the issue in detail) that the ‘experts’ he agrees with must be right about the future, and the ‘experts’ he disagrees with are wrong about it. That’s not an argument against experts; it’s just confirmation bias. To be fair, though, the number on the side of the bus wasn’t confirmation bias. Rather, it was a lie.  

Scribbled without numeracy by incompetent interns; published without scrutiny by hungover journalists; cheered without irony by back-stabbing politicians. Six months after the referendum vote, the debate over Brexit deserves better than this report. We can only cross our fingers for 2017.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27

Photo credit: Imgur


  1. As soon as I read their "report" I could see it was just a lot of biased number crunching with the sole intention of adding creedence to their flawed claim.

  2. The red tape arguement is nonsense. They are the regulations imposed in other markets. These regulations are being harmonised across the globe in cosmetics, invitro diagnostic devices, medicinal products and medical devices. Leaving the EU means that we will increase red tape as we will need to put these into British law. The people who cite this arguement know nothing about global trade in goods and services. They do not know a single thing about real business and they wrpa themselves up in the garb of business because they gambled in the stock market.

  3. The cost of leaving the single market is 4% of GDP - £60bn a year. This dwarfs any of the other numbers and is the one that most needs to be shouted about. The Leavers refuse to acknowledge this figure, yet it is solidly based on a great deal of research (including research done well before the referendum).

  4. Brexit is an entirely emotional position. The use of stats like the £350m relied on repetition rather than a need to be verifiable. The lie was easily disproved but the suggested beneficiary, the NHS, had a powerful emotional appeal as an institution the public value. As the UK's global influence declined the need to believe it should be protected was a motivating factor for Leave voters. Any belief that nation status in the world could be enhanced by isolationism was never debated. The negative Project Fear agenda played to the dismissal of statistical projections finding cover in misleading information. Project Fear was believed to have worked in the Scottish referendum. The reality was support for independence grew from 28% to 45% by the time of the vote. Gordon Brown's 'vow' pulled the result back in the final days, as with a week to go polls began to project a narrow win. Using the same strategy risked losing Cameron the referendum, as proved to be the case. A positive Remain campaign might well have increased understanding that nations are inter dependent and reach beneficial outcomes by entering into arrangements that improve trade, economic and social welfare, regional security and much more. The UK seems set to draw up the drawbridge having never fully understood that tearing up a 40 year relationship in exchange for an unknowable outcome would do nothing for the UK's position in the world

  5. 'Pull up the drawbidge' ,'tearing up a relationship' this is the kind of inflammatory bollocks that lost you the vote in the first place. You still don't get it. We didn't trust the IFS the first time round and we still don't trust the IFS now.

    1. Obviously it is 'tearing up a relationship', what on earth else would you call it? And of course you just revert to confirmation bias, asserting you don't trust the IFS analysis without even trying to give any critique or analysis of your own.