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The UK’s EU referendum: the economic arguments

Many of the arguments used by both sides in the referendum debate centre on whether there will be a net economic gain from either remaining in or leaving the EU. This involves forecasting.

Forecasting the economic impact of the decision, however, is difficult, especially in the case of a leave vote, which would involve substantial change and uncertainty.

First, the effects of either remaining or leaving may be very different in the long run from the short run, and long-run forecasts are highly unreliable, as the economy is likely to be affected by so many unpredictable events – few people, for example, predicted the financial crisis of 2007–8.

Second, the effects of leaving depend on the nature of any future trading relationships with the EU. Various possibilities have been suggested, including ‘the Norwegian model’, where Britain leaves the EU, but joins the European Economic Area, giving access to the single market, but removing regulation in some key areas, such as fisheries and home affairs. Another possibility is ‘the Swiss model’, where the UK would negotiate trade deals on an individual basis. Another would be ‘the Turkish model’ where the UK forms a customs union with the EU. At the extreme, the UK could make a complete break from the EU and simply use its membership of the WTO to make trade agreements.

Nevertheless, despite the uncertainty, economists have ventured to predict the effects of remaining or leaving. These are not precise predictions for the reasons given above. Rather they are based on likely assumptions.

In a poll of 100 economists for the Financial Times, ‘almost three-quarters thought leaving the EU would damage the country’s medium-term outlook, nine times more than the 8 per cent who thought the country would benefit from leaving’. Most fear damage to financial markets in the UK and to inward foreign direct investment.

Despite the barrage of pessimistic forecasts by economists about a British exit, there is a group of eight economists in favour of Brexit. They claim that leaving the EU would lead to a stronger economy, with higher GDP, a faster growth in real wages, lower unemployment and a smaller gap between imports and exports. The main argument they use to support their claims is that the UK would be more able to pursue trade creation freed from various EU rules and regulations.

Then, less than four weeks before the vote, a poll of economists who are members of the Royal Economic Society and the Society of Business Economists came out strongly in favour of continued membership of the EU. Of the 639 respondents, 72 per cent thought that the most likely impact of Brexit on UK real GDP would be negative over the next 10 to 20 years; and 88 per cent thought the impact on GDP would be negative in the next five years (see chart: click to enlarge).

Of those stating that a negative impact on GDP in the next 5 years would be most likely, a majority cited loss of access to the single market (67%) and increased uncertainty leading to reduced investment (66%).

The views of the majority of economists accord with those of various organisations. Domestic ones, such as the Bank of England, the Treasury (see the blog Brexit costs), the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) all warn that Brexit would be likely to result in lower growth – possibly a recession – increased unemployment, a fall in the exchange rate and higher prices and that greater economic uncertainty would damage investment.

International organisations, such as the OECD, the IMF and the WTO, also argue that leaving the EU would create great uncertainty over future trade relations and access to the Single Market and would reduce inward foreign direct investment and the flow of skills.

But the forecasts of all these organisations depend on their assumptions about trade relations and that, in the event of the UK leaving the EU, would depend on the outcome of trade negotiations. The Leave campaign argues that other countries would want to trade with the UK and that therefore leaving would not damage trade. The Remain campaign argues that the EU would not wish to be generous to the UK for fear of encouraging other countries to leave the EU and that, anyway, the process of decoupling from the EU and negotiating new trade deals would take many years and, in the meantime, the uncertainty would be damaging to investment and growth.

The articles linked below looks at the economic arguments about Brexit and reflect the range of views of economists. Several are from ‘The Conversation’ as these are by academic economists. Although some economists are in favour of Brexit, the vast majority support the Remain side in the debate.

Articles
EU referendum: Pros and cons of Britain voting to leave Europe The Week (4/5/16)
The fatal contradictions in the Remain and Leave camps The Economist (3/6/16)
Four reasons a post-Brexit UK can’t copy Norway or Switzerland The Telegraph, Andrew Sentance (10/6/16)
What will Brexit do to UK trade? Independent, Ben Chu (2/6/16)
Leavers may not like economists but we are right about Brexit Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson (9/6/15)
Why Brexit supporters should take an EU-turn – just like I did The Conversation, Wilfred Dolfsma (8/6/16)
The economic case for Brexit The Conversation, Philip B. Whyman (28/4/16)
Fact Check: do the Treasury’s Brexit numbers add up? The Conversation, Nauro Campos (20/4/16)
Which Brexit forecast should you trust the most? An economist explains The Conversation, Nauro Campos (25/4/16)
Why is the academic consensus on the cost of Brexit being ignored? The Conversation, Simon Wren-Lewis (17/5/16)
How Brexit would reduce foreign investment in the UK – and why that matters The Conversation, John Van Reenen (15/4/16)
The consensus on modelling Brexit NIESR, Jack Meaning, Oriol Carreras, Simon Kirby and Rebecca Piggott (23/5/16)

Reports, Press Conferences, etc.
Economists’ forecasts: Brexit would damage growth Financial Times, Chris Giles and Emily Cadman (3/1/16)
The Economy After Brexit, Economists for Brexit
Economists’ Views on Brexit Ipsos MORI (28/5/16)
Inflation Report Bank of England (May 2016)
EU referendum: HM Treasury analysis key facts HM Treasury (18/4/16)
Brexit and the UK’s public finances Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson , Paul Johnson , Ian Mitchell and David Phillips (25/5/16)
The Long and the Short of it: What price UK Exit from the EU? NIESR, Oriol Carreras, Monique Ebell, Simon Kirby, Jack Meaning, Rebecca Piggott and James Warren (12/5/16)
The Economic Consequences of Brexit: A Taxing Decision OECD (27/4/16)
Transcript of the Press Conference on the Release of the April 2016 World Economic Outlook IMF (12/4/16)
Macroeconomic implications of the United Kingdom leaving the Euroepan Union IMF Country Report 16/169 (1/6/16)
WTO warns on tortuous Brexit trade talks Financial Times, Shawn Donnan (25/5/16)

Questions

  1. Summarise the main economic arguments of the Remain side.
  2. What assumptions are made by the Remain side about Brexit?
  3. Summarise the main economic arguments of the Leave side.
  4. What assumptions are made by the Leave side about Brexit?
  5. Assess the realism of the assumptions of the two sides.
  6. If the UK exited the EU, would it be possible to continue gaining the benefits of the single market while restricting the free movement of labour?
  7. Would it be beneficial to go for a ‘free trade’ option of abolishing all import tariffs if the UK left the EU? Would it mean that UK exports would face no tariffs from other countries?
  8. If forecasting is unreliable, does this mean that nothing can be said about the costs and benefits of Brexit? Explain.
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Brexit costs

The Treasury has published a paper analysing the costs of Britain leaving the EU. Its central assumption is that the UK would negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the EU similar to that between Canada and the EU. Under this assumption the Treasury estimates that, by 2030, GDP would be 6.2% lower than if the UK had remained in the EU, meaning that the average household would be £4300 per year worse off than it would otherwise have been. The analysis also finds that there would be a total reduction in tax receipts of £36 billion per year – far greater than any savings from lower contributions to the EU budget.

Not surprisingly the ‘Vote Remain’ campaign for the UK to stay in the EU has welcomed the analysis, seeing it as strong evidence in support of their case. Also, not surprisingly, the Vote Leave campaign has questioned both the analysis and the assumptions on which it is based.

The Treasury analysis looks at three possible scenarios: (a) a Canada-style bilateral arrangement (the central estimate); (b) the UK becoming a member or the European Economic Area – the ‘Norwegian model’ (according to the Treasury, this would reduce GDP by 3.8%); (c) no specific deal with the EU, with the UK simply having the same access to the EU as any other country that is a mamber of the WTO (this would reduce GDP by 7.5%). Thus the Norwegian model would probably result in a smaller reduction in growth, but the UK would still continue to make contributions to the EU budget and have to allow free movement of labour. Only in option (c) would it have total control over migration. Each of the estimates has a margin of error, giving a range for the reduction in GDP across the three scenarios from 3.4% to 9.5%.

The Treasury used a three-stage process to arrive at its conclusions, as explained in the FT article below:

First, it uses gravity models to estimate the effect of different trade relationships on the quantity of trade and foreign direct investment. Gravity models take into account how close countries are to each other geographically, as well as their historical links, rather than assuming that trade flows to wherever the lowest tariffs are.

Second, it uses external academic results to estimate the consequences for productivity – the efficiency of the UK economy – from different levels of trade and foreign direct investment.

Third, it plugs the productivity numbers unto a global economic model run by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to estimate the long-run differences in national income and prosperity.

Clearly there is large-scale uncertainty over any forecasts 14 years ahead, especially when the relationship with the EU and other countries post-EU exit can only be roughly estimated. The question is whether the assumptions are reasonable and whether there would be substantial costs from Brexit, but not necessarily of £4300 per household.

The following articles look at the analysis and its assumptions. Unlike many newspaper articles, which clearly have an agenda, these articles are relatively unbiased and try to assess the arguments. Of course, it would be difficult to be totally unbiased and it would be a good idea to try to spot any biases in each of the articles.

Articles
Treasury’s Brexit analysis: what it says — and what it doesn’t Financial Times, Chris Giles (18/4/16)
A Treasury analysis suggests the costs of Brexit would be high The Economist (18/4/16)
George Osborne says UK would lose £36bn in tax receipts if it left EU The Guardian, Anushka Asthana and Tom Clark (18/4/16)
Will each UK household be £4,300 worse off if the UK leaves the EU? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/4/16)
FactCheck Q&A: can we trust the Treasury on Brexit? Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (18/4/16)
Reality Check: Would Brexit cost your family £4,300? BBC News, Anthony Reuben (18/4/16)
Brexit sparks outbreak of agreement among economists Financial Times, Chris Giles (27/4/16)

Treasury analysis
EU referendum: HM Treasury analysis key facts HM Treasury (18/4/16)
HM Treasury analysis: the long-term economic impact of EU membership and the alternatives HM Treasury (18/4/16)

Questions

  1. Would households actually be poorer if the Treasury’s forecasts are correct?
  2. What alternative trade arrangements with the EU would be possible if the UK left the EU?
  3. What are the Treasury model’s main weaknesses?
  4. What considerations are UK voters likely to take into account in the referendum which are not included in the Treasury analysis?
  5. Make out the case for supporting the analysis of the Treasury.
  6. Make out the case for rejecting the analysis of the Treasury.
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