In the annals of British economic history, the chapter on Brexit will undoubtedly be one of the most debated. As we stand in 2023, the discourse continues to unfold, with business owners weighing in with a sombre verdict. A majority, 62.2%, believe Brexit has been detrimental to the UK’s economic prosperity. 27.3% of respondents believe it was good, 10.5% believe it was neutral. Stratagora surveyed UK business owners in November 2023.

The survey results reflect the real-world implications that have transpired since the United Kingdom decisively parted ways with the European Union. These are not merely statistics; they are the collective voice of an industry grappling with the aftermath of one of the most seismic policy shifts in recent history.

Brexit

Trade and Turmoil

The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union marked the onset of significant trade upheaval. Previously, goods and services moved with relative ease across borders within the EU’s single market, a system that promoted economic integration by eliminating tariffs and reducing paperwork. However, post-Brexit, the re-establishment of the UK’s borders with the EU introduced a complex array of customs declarations, safety checks, and regulatory scrutiny. This new reality has proven to be a considerable impediment to the free flow of trade. According to a report from the Office for National Statistics, UK exports to the EU fell by 40% in January 2021, immediately after Brexit, indicating the immediate impact of leaving the single market.

Post-Brexit Red Tape

The bureaucratic expansion has been most acutely felt by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form the backbone of the UK economy. These businesses often lack the resources to navigate the intricate web of new regulations and have found themselves at a disadvantage. For instance, many SMEs have faced delays due to increased customs checks, with some sectors reporting that perishable goods are spoiling before reaching EU markets. The Federation of Small Businesses reported that 23% of small UK exporters had temporarily halted sales to EU customers and 4% had decided to stop selling into the bloc altogether. These disruptions have led to decreased revenues and increased operational costs.

Post-Brexit Financial Implications

The financial strain on these businesses is palpable. They are contending with not only the direct costs of compliance — such as hiring customs agents and adapting to new IT systems — but also with the indirect costs stemming from delivery delays and lost contracts. The British Chambers of Commerce highlighted that 49% of UK exporters faced difficulties adapting to changes in the trading of goods in early 2021. The agility that once allowed UK businesses to compete effectively across Europe has been compromised, with the repercussions echoing through supply chains and into the wider economy. The cumulative effect of these challenges has the potential to reshape the UK’s economic landscape, with long-term implications for its position in global trade.

Talent Exodus

The cessation of free movement following Brexit precipitated a talent drain from the UK, exacerbating labour shortages across various sectors. The healthcare system, for example, has been particularly impacted; the Royal College of Nursing notes that there was a sharp decline in the number of EU nurses registering to work in the UK post-Brexit. This has heightened the strain on an already overstretched NHS, where vacancies for nursing and midwifery posts run into the thousands.

Agriculture, another cornerstone of the UK economy, has also been hit hard by the withdrawal of a European workforce that once underpinned the sector. The National Farmers’ Union has reported critical workforce deficiencies, particularly during harvest seasons, leading to crops rotting in the fields and a consequent loss in revenue and productivity. The impact extends beyond just the immediate labour; it disrupts the entire supply chain, from field to supermarket.

These labour deficits have naturally led to wage inflation as businesses compete for a shrinking pool of domestic workers. While higher wages can be a boon for employees, they represent a double-edged sword for business economics, squeezing profit margins and potentially leading to increased prices for consumers. The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecasted that the long-term effects of Brexit could lead to a 4% reduction in productivity, partially attributable to the reduced availability of skilled labour. This presents a stark challenge: businesses must now find ways to mitigate these workforce shortages or risk long-term declines in productivity and growth.

Financial Services Flee

Brexit’s impact on the financial sector has been profound, particularly due to the loss of passporting rights. These rights were a cornerstone of the City of London’s pre-eminence as a financial hub, enabling UK-based financial firms to sell their services across the European Union without the need for separate licenses in each member state. The removal of these rights has forced many companies to rethink their European strategies.

In response, there has been a discernible shift of financial services and assets from London to EU cities such as Frankfurt, Paris, and Dublin. The consultancy firm EY tracked at least £1.2 trillion in assets and around 7,500 financial services jobs relocating to the EU by March 2021. This exodus is not just about moving pieces on a chessboard; it signifies a potential long-term shift in the centre of gravity of European finance away from London.

This migration has several implications. Firstly, it threatens London’s ability to influence global financial standards and maintain its competitive edge. Furthermore, there is the potential loss in tax revenues for the UK government, with the financial services sector contributing £75.5 billion in tax receipts in the year 2019/2020, as reported by the City of London Corporation. The sector’s diminished size post-Brexit may therefore impact public finances and the economy at large.

Moreover, there’s a risk of a domino effect; as more firms and services leave, the appeal for others to remain lessens, potentially leading to further departures. The challenge now for the UK is to forge a new identity for its financial services sector, one that can thrive independently of the EU mechanisms it once relied upon so heavily.

Post-Brexit: What Next?

In the wake of Brexit, the UK stands at a critical juncture, with the business community voicing significant trepidation about the path ahead. The feedback from a recent survey is telling, with a majority of business owners acknowledging the substantial difficulties unleashed by the UK’s departure from the EU. As we contemplate the future, it’s clear that the choices made now will have enduring implications for the nation’s economic landscape. Against this backdrop, we explore three potential scenarios that could shape the UK’s economic destiny: re-joining the EU, entering into the EEA, or forging a path entirely outside European markets. Each path carries its own set of prospects and challenges, setting the stage for a pivotal decision on the UK’s post-Brexit trajectory.

Re-joining the European Union

Pros:

  • Market Access: Re-entry into the EU would restore the benefits of the single market and customs union, facilitating frictionless trade, which is particularly beneficial for the service sector that dominates the UK economy.
  • Freedom of Movement: It would also reinstate the free movement of people, inviting back the much-needed skilled and unskilled labour that many industries are currently lacking.
  • Political Clout: The UK would regain its voice in one of the world’s largest trading blocs, influencing policies that affect its economy and social landscape.

Cons:

  • Sovereignty Concerns: Critics argue that EU membership impinges on national sovereignty, particularly in areas such as lawmaking and border control.
  • Financial Obligations: Membership comes with financial contributions to the EU budget, which some view as onerous.
  • Regulatory Alignment: The UK would need to realign with EU regulations, which may be a point of contention for those who favour independent regulatory structures.

Re-joining the European Economic Area (EEA)

Pros:

  • Market Participation: This option offers access to the single market without full EU membership, potentially easing trade barriers and promoting economic stability.
  • Regulatory Flexibility: While the UK would need to adhere to certain EU regulations, it could maintain more autonomy over various sectors than full EU members.
  • Compromise Solution: For those who favour economic ties without political integration, this offers a middle ground.

Cons:

  • Reduced Influence: The UK would still be subject to many EU rules without having a direct say in their formulation.
  • Free Movement: The EEA includes free movement, which could remain a contentious issue for some UK constituents.
  • Contribution without Representation: The UK would likely contribute to the EU budget without enjoying the full benefits of membership.

Remaining Outside European Markets

Pros:

  • Autonomy: The UK maintains its sovereignty and the freedom to set its own trade and immigration policies.
  • Global Opportunities: There is potential to forge new trade deals globally, unrestricted by EU trade policies.
  • Regulatory Independence: The UK can create and implement regulations tailored to its own economic needs and preferences.

Cons:

  • Trade Barriers: Loss of the single market means increased costs and red tape for businesses trading with the EU.
  • Economic Isolation: There is a risk of being isolated from the nearest and largest trading bloc, which could inhibit growth and investment.
  • Uncertainty: Continuing outside of established frameworks can perpetuate economic uncertainty, impacting long-term planning and investment.

Advocating for Re-joining the EU

In light of these scenarios, advocating for re-joining the EU becomes a compelling argument. The UK’s departure has evidently brought about a plethora of economic hurdles, from trade barriers to a shrinking labour market. Re-joining the EU could potentially mitigate these issues, re-establishing economic stability and growth trajectories that were more predictable prior to Brexit.

The benefits of integrated markets, combined with the return of a skilled workforce, could rejuvenate sectors that have been hit hardest by Brexit. Moreover, reasserting the UK’s influence within the EU could ensure that the nation’s interests are directly represented in the shaping of policies that have far-reaching economic implications.

While sovereignty and regulatory independence are valid concerns, the overarching narrative is that the economic advantages of EU membership might outweigh the benefits of a lone stance. It’s a narrative of economic pragmatism that beckons a return to a union that, despite its imperfections, offers a well-trodden path for economic prosperity and international collaboration.

The integration within the European Union represents a holistic economic strategy, one that aligns with the globalised nature of trade, investment, and innovation. It is a path that could lead the UK back to the economic forefront, leveraging collective strength for individual prosperity.

Re-joining the EU appears to be the most beneficial route for the UK economy moving forward. It provides a solution to the immediate economic challenges post-Brexit and aligns with the long-term vision of a prosperous, interconnected Britain.