The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 and entered an 11-month transition phase during which previous arrangements largely applied. On 30 December 2020, the UK and the EU signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) (see also), which set out the details of the post-Brexit trading arrangements between the UK and the EU after the ending of the transition period on 31 December 2020. The new arrangements have been implemented in stages so as to minimise disruption.
A major change was implemented on 1 January 2022, when full customs controls came into effect on imports into the UK from the EU. Later in the year a range of safety and security measures will be introduced, such as physical checks on live animals.
Not surprisingly, the anniversary of the TCA has been marked by many articles on Brexit: assessing its effects so far and looking into the future. Most of the articles see Brexit as having imposed net costs on the UK and the EU. They reflect the views of economists generally. As the first FT article linked below states, “The debate among economists on Brexit has rarely been about whether there would be a hit to growth and living standards, but rather how big a hit”.
The trade and GDP costs of Brexit
The Office for Budget Responsibility in October 2021 attempted to measure these costs in terms of the loss in trade and GDP. In October 2021, it stated:
Since our first post-EU referendum Economic and Fiscal Outlook in November 2016, our forecasts have assumed that total UK imports and exports will eventually both be 15 per cent lower than had we stayed in the EU. This reduction in trade intensity drives the 4 per cent reduction in long-run potential productivity we assume will eventually result from our departure from the EU.
…the evidence so far suggests that both import and export intensity have been reduced by Brexit, with developments still consistent with our initial assumption of a 15 per cent reduction in each.
This analysis is supported by evidence from John Springford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank. He compares the UK’s actual performance with a ‘doppelgänger’ UK, which is an imaginary UK that has not left the EU. The doppelgänger used “is a subset of countries selected from a larger group of 22 advanced economies by an algorithm. The algorithm finds the countries that, when combined, create a doppelgänger UK that has the smallest possible deviation from the real UK data until December 2019, before the pandemic struck.” According to Springford, the shortfall in trade in October 2021 was 15.7 per cent – very much in line with the OBR’s forecasts.
Explanations of the costs
Why, then, have have been and will continue to be net economic costs from Brexit?
The main reason is that the UK has moved from being in the EU Single Market, a system of virtually friction-free trade and factor movements, to a trade agreement (the TCA) which, while being tariff and quota free for goods produced in the UK and the EU, involves considerable frictions. These frictions include greatly increased paperwork, which adds to the cost of trade. This has affected small businesses particularly, for whom the increased administrative costs generally represent a larger proportion of total costs than for large businesses.
Although EU tariffs are not imposed on goods wholly originating in the UK, they are imposed on many goods that are not. Under ‘rules of origin’ regulations, an item can only count as a British good if sufficient value or weight is added. If insufficient value is added, then customs charges are imposed. Similar rules apply from 1 January 2022 on goods imported into the Great Britain from the EU which are only partially made in the EU. The issue of rules of origin was examined in the blog A free-trade deal? Not really. Goods being moved between Great Britain and the EU are checked at ports and can only be released into the market if they have a valid customs declaration and have received customs clearance. This involves considerable paperwork for businesses. As the article below from Internet Retailing states:
UK and EU importers need to be able to state the origin of the goods they trade between the UK and EU. For some goods, exporters need to hold supplier declarations to show where they were made and where materials came from. From January 1, those issuing statements of origin for goods exported to the EU will need to hold the supplier declarations at the time that they export their goods, whereas up till now the those declarations could be supplied later.
Brexit has had considerable effects on the labour market. Many EU citizens returned to their home countries both before and after Brexit, creating labour shortages in many sectors. Also, it has become more difficult for UK citizens to work in the EU, with work permits required in most cases. This has had a major effect on some UK workers. For example, British touring musicians and performers find it difficult to tour, given the lack of an EU-wide visa waiver, ‘cabotage’ rules that ban large UK tour vehicles from making more than two stops before returning to the UK and new paperwork needed to take certain musical instruments into the EU.
Another issue concerns investment. Will greater restrictions in trade between the EU and the UK reduce inward investment to the UK, with international companies preferring to locate factories producing for Europe in the EU rather than the UK as the EU market is bigger than the UK market? So far, fears have not been realised as inward investment has held up well, partly because of the rapid bounce-back from the pandemic and the successful roll-out of the vaccine. Nevertheless, the UK’s dominance as a recipient of inward investment to Europe has been replaced by a three-way dominance of the UK, France and Germany, with France being the biggest recipient of the three in 2019 and 2020. It will be some years before the extent to which Brexit has damaged inward investment to the UK, if at all, becomes clear.
The TCA applies to goods, not services. One of the major concerns has been the implications of Brexit for financial services and the City of London. Before Brexit, financial institutions based in the UK had ‘passporting rights’. These allowed them to offer financial services across EU borders and to set up branches in EU countries easily. With the ending of the transition period in December 2020, these passporting rights have ceased. The EU has granted temporary ‘equivalence’ to such institutions until June 2022, but then it comes to an end and there is no prospect of deal on financial services in the near future. Indeed, the EU is actively trying to encourage more financial activity to move from the UK to the EU. Several financial institutions have already relocated all or part of their business from London to the EU.
The articles below examine these costs and many give examples of specific firms and how Brexit has impacted on them. As you will see, there are quite a lot of articles and you might just want to select a few. Or if this blog is being used for classes, the articles could be assigned to different students and used as the basis for discussion.
Whilst the additional costs in terms of trade restrictions and paperwork are clear, it is too soon to know how well firms will be able to overcome them. Many of those who support Brexit argue that the UK now has freedom to impose lighter UK regulations on firms and that this could encourage economic growth. Other supporters of Brexit, however, argue that Brexit gives the UK government the opportunity to impose tougher environmental, safety and employment protection regulations. Again, it is too soon to know what direction the current and future governments will move.
Then there is the question of trade deals with non-EU countries. How many will there be? When will they be signed? What will their terms be? So far, the deals signed have largely been just a roll-over of the deals the UK previously had with these countries as a member of the EU. The one exception is the deal with Australia. But the gains from that are tiny – an estimated gain of between 0.02 and 0.08 per cent of GDP from 2035 (compared with the estimated 4 per cent loss from leaving the EU’s Single Market). Also there are fears by the UK agricultural sector that cheaper food from Australia, produced under lower standards, could undercut UK farmers, especially after the end of a 15-year transitional period. So far, a trade deal with the USA seems a long way off.
Then there are uncertainties about the Northern Ireland Protocol, under which there is an effective border between Great Britain and the EU down the Irish Sea, with free trade across the Northern Ireland–Republic of Ireland border. Will it be rewritten? Will the UK renege on its treaty commitments to impose checks on goods flowing between Northern Ireland and Great Britain?
Difficulties with the Northern Ireland Protocol, highlight another uncertainty and that is the political relationships between the UK and the EU, which have come under considerable strain with various post-Brexit disputes. Could these difficulties damage trade further and, if so, by how much?
What is clear is that there is considerable uncertainty about the future, a future that for some time is likely to be affected by the pandemic and its aftermath in both the UK and the EU. As the OBR states:
It is too early to reach definitive conclusions because:
- The terms of the TCA are yet to be implemented in full, meaning trade barriers will rise further as more of the deal comes into force. For example, the introduction of full checks on UK imports has recently been delayed until 2022.
- The full effect of the referendum outcome and higher trade barriers will probably take several years to come through, with businesses needing considerable time to adjust.
- The pandemic has delivered a large shock to UK and global trade volumes over the past 18 months, making it difficult to disentangle the separate effect of leaving the EU.
- Finally, trade data tend to be relatively volatile and are revised frequently, rendering any initial conclusions subject to change as the data are revised.
- Analysis shows Brexit caused £12 billion of lost trade in October
ITV News, Joel Hills (10/12/21)
- Brexit: One year on, the economic impact is starting to show
BBC News, Faisal Islam (24/12/21)
- Brexit: The economic impact a year on
BBC News, Douglas Fraser (21/12/21)
- Brexit: what the UK/EU customs changes mean for businesses from January 1
The Conversation, Karen Jackson (21/12/21)
- Prices could rise even more as Brexit import rules are toughened up in New Year
i, David Parsley (23/12/21)
- Brexit one year on: the impact on the UK economy
Financial Times, Chris Giles (23/12/21)
- Businesses struggle to prepare for UK’s post-Brexit import controls
Financial Times, Peter Foster, Marton Dunai and James Shotter (29/12/21)
- How the post-Brexit rules for EU trade are set to change at New Year
Internet Retailing, Chloe Rigby (17/12/21)
- Post-Brexit Guide: Five years since UK vote, where are we now – and how did we get here?
Euronews, Alasdair Sandford (20/12/21)
- A year since Brexit: Will new UK import controls complicate trade further?
Euronews, Alasdair Sandford (31/12/21)
- Brexit passporting: Little appetite among EU finance firms to stay in London as FCA applications disappoint
City A.M., Michiel Willems (30/12/21)
- Brexit red tape: More disruption to food supplies looming as EU is ‘not prepared’ for new UK import rules that take effect on 1 January
City A.M., Michiel Willems (30/12/21)
- Just a Year of Brexit Has Thumped U.K.’s Economy and Businesses
Bloomberg, Joe Mayes (22/12/21)
- Frosty Resignation Leaves Boris Johnson With Brexit Meltdown
Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (20/12/21)
- What a Year of Brexit Brought U.K. Companies: Higher Costs and Endless Forms
New York Times, Eshe Nelson (29/12/21)
- The anniversary of ‘getting Brexit done’ is more a wake than a celebration
Independent, Vince Cable (28/12/21)
- Brexit customs controls coming in January ‘disastrous’ for UK traders, business chiefs warn
Independent, Adam Forrest (24/12/21)
- Brexit: ‘the biggest disaster any government has ever negotiated’
The Guardian, Lisa O’Carroll (27/12/21)
- What the UK and hauliers can expect from long-delayed Brexit controls
The Guardian, Lisa O’Carroll (29/12/21)
- Brexit one year on: so how’s it going?
The Observer, Toby Helm (25/12/21)
- Summarise the reasons why the volume of trade between the UK and the EU is likely to be below the level it would have been if the UK had remained in the Single Market.
- How can economists disentangle the effects of Brexit from the effects of Covid? How is the ‘doppelgänger UK’ model used for this purpose?
- Are there any economic advantages of the UK’s exit from the EU? If so, what are they and how significant are they?
- The OBR forecasts that there will be a long-term reduction of 15 per cent in both UK imports from the EU and UK exports to the EU. What might cause this figure to be (a) greater than 15 per cent; (b) less than 15 per cent?
Shipping and supply chains generally have experienced major problems in 2021. The global pandemic disrupted the flow of trade, and the bounce-back in the summer of 2021 saw supply chains stretched as staff shortages and physical capacity limits hit the transport of freight. Ships were held up at ports waiting for unloading and onward transportation. The just-in-time methods of delivery and stock holding were put under considerable strain.
The problems were compounded by the blockage of the Suez canal in March 2021. As the blog, JIT or Illegit stated “When the large container ship, the Ever Given, en route from Malaysia to Felixtowe, was wedged in the Suez canal for six days in March this year, the blockage caused shipping to be backed up. By day six, 367 container ships were waiting to transit the canal. The disruption to supply cost some £730m.”
Another major event in 2021 was the Glasgow COP26 climate conference and the growing willingness of countries to commit to decarbonising their economies. But whereas electricity can be generated from renewable sources, and factories and land transport, such as cars, vans and trains, can run on electricity, it is not so easy to decarbonise shipping, especially for long journeys. They cannot plug in to the grid or draw down from overhead cables. They have to carry their own fuel sources with them.
So, have the pandemic and the Ever Given incident exposed weaknesses in the global supply chain and in shipping in particular? And, if so, in what ways is shipping likely to adapt? And will the pressure to decarbonise lead to a radical rethinking of shipping and long-distance trade?
These are some of the issues considered in the podcast linked below. In it, “Shipping strategist Mark Williams tells Helen Lewis how examining the challenge of decarbonising shipping reveals a future which looks radically different to today, in a world where population, oil extraction and economic growth have all peaked, and trade is transformed”.
Listen to the podcast and have a go at the questions below which are based directly on it.
- Why should we care about the shipping industry?
- What lessons can be drawn from the Ever Given incident?
- What structural changes are needed to make shipping an industry fit for the long-term demands of the global economy?
- Distinguish between just-in-time supply chains and just-in-case supply chains.
- What are ‘reshoring’ and ‘nearshoring’? How have they been driven by a growth in trade barriers?
- What are the implications of reshoring and nearshoring for (a) globalisation and (b) the UK’s trading position post-Brexit?
- What is the contribution of shipping to global greenhouse gas emissions? What other pollutants are emitted from the burning of heavy fuel oil (or ‘bunker fuel’)?
- What levers exist to persuade shipping companies to decarbonise their vessels?
- What alternative ‘green’ fuels are available to power ships?
- What are the difficulties in switching to such fuels?
- What economies of scale are there in shipping?
- How do the ownership patterns in shipping benefit decision making and change in the industry?
- Are ammonia or nuclear power the answer to the decarbonisation of shipping? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
- Why are President Xi’s views on the future of shipping so important?
- How will the decarbonisation of economies affect the demand for shipping?
- What is likely to happen to Chinese demand for iron ore and coking coal over the coming years? What effect will it have on shipping?
- How and by how much is the European Emissions Trading System likely to contribute to the decarbonisation of shipping?
- What is the Sea Cargo Charter? What difference is it likely to make to the decarbonisation of shipping?
- In what ways do cargo ships optimise productivity?
- What impact is slowing population growth, or even no population growth, likely to have on shipping?
Long queues at petrol pumps, with many filling stations running out of fuel; fears of shortages of food and various other items in supermarkets; orders by shops and warehouses unfilled or delayed. These have been some of the headlines in the UK in recent days.
The immediate problem is a shortage of over 100 000 lorry drivers, with thousands of drivers from EU countries, who were previously living and working in the UK, having returned to their home countries. Their numbers have not been replaced by British drivers, a problem exacerbated by a decline in HGV tests during the pandemic. Thus the supply of lorry drivers has fallen.
At the same time, as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, aggregate demand has risen and with it the demand for lorry drivers.
The shortage is pushing up wages somewhat, but not enough to eliminate the shortage. What is more, the supply of lorry drivers is relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not attract many more drivers into the market. Also the demand is also relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not do much to dampen the demand for drivers.
But why has this happened? Why has the supply of drivers fallen and why is it inelastic? And what will happen in the coming months? The three main causes are Brexit, COVID-19 and working conditions.
With Brexit, many EU workers left the UK, finding life and working conditions more conducive in the EU. Many EU drivers had faced discrimination and felt that they were not welcome in the UK. It has been difficult finding replacement drivers from the EU as the UK’s immigration system, which now applies to the EU as well as other countries, prioritises workers who are classified as high-skilled, and these do not include lorry drivers.
Those EU drivers who do want to stay as UK residents are finding that settled status or visas are not easy to achieve and involve filling in various documents, which can be an onerous and time-consuming process. As the writer of the first linked bog below, who is a Polish worker in the transport industry, states, ‘Would you rather come to Britain and jump through all the hoops, or choose any of the well-paying EU countries, for example, Germany that, if you live in Western Poland, is just a short drive across (virtually non-existent thanks to Schengen) border?’ Another problem is that with EU driving licences: it is harder for potential employers to check on their status and thus they may prefer to employ UK drivers. This, again, puts off EU drivers from seeking to stay in the UK.
Even in the case of EU drivers living in the EU but delivering to the UK there are problems. First there are the dangers for drivers of boarding ferries in France, where people from migrant camps seek to board lorries to get passage to the UK, often threatening drivers. If illegal migrants do succeed in boarding a trailer unseen by the driver, the driver can then be arrested in the UK. According to the Polish blogger, it’s ‘no surprise that I hear more and more drivers who, when taking on new jobs, demand guarantees from their employers that they won’t be sent to the UK’.
Then there is a decline in the system known as ‘cabotage’. This is where an EU driver delivers from the EU to destination A in the UK and takes back a load to the EU from destination B in the UK. To avoid having to travel empty between the two UK destinations, the driver could pick up a load to take from A to B. With a fall in imports and exports from and to the EU following Brexit, there are fewer EU lorries on UK roads. This means that there is now less capacity for transporting loads within the UK.
There has also been a large rise in ‘red tape’ associated with post-Brexit customs checks and border controls. This means that lorries can be held up at ports. This makes it much less attractive for EU haulage companies to export to the UK rather than to other EU countries, where paperwork is minimal. In addition, m many drivers are paid by the length of the journey rather than by the time spent, so delays result in them earning less per hour. Full checks have not been introduced yet. When they are, in January and July next year, the problem will be worse.
Tax changes make it more difficult for drivers to avoid taxes by claiming that they are self employed when they are in reality employees. This too is discouraging drivers from the EU from moving to or staying in the UK since many would now (since April 2021) be paying more tax.
Another contributing factor to the shortage of drivers has been COVID-19 and the government’s response to it. COVID rates are considerably higher in the UK than in most EU countries and, not surprisingly, many EU drivers are afraid to come to the UK.
The pandemic led to fewer HGV driver tests, with 25 000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019. It takes time to train new drivers and then to test them. However, even if there had been no reduction in HGV drivers passing their tests, there would still be a significant shortage of qualified drivers.
A further problem with the effects of COVID-19 on the economy has been the initial recession and then the bounce back. The sheer size of the bounce back has exacerbated the problem of driver shortages, which otherwise would have been slower to develop, giving the market more time to respond. Real GDP grew by 5.5% from 2021 Q1 to 2021 Q2, giving an annual growth rate of 23.6%. Nevertheless, GDP was still some 3.3% below its 2019 Q3 level.
Pay and working conditions
Working conditions are very poor for many drivers. The following are common complaints:
- Driving jobs are often very tightly controlled, with computer monitoring and little freedom for the driver. Some cabs have cameras aimed at the drivers so that they can be constantly monitored.
- Drivers are subject to very stringent health and safety regulations, such as not being allowed to drive longer than a certain time, even when they are queuing in congested traffic. Whilst many of these regulations are desirable to protect both the public’s and the driver’s safety, they can discourage drivers from entering or staying in the industry. And some regulations are hard to justify on safety grounds (see second linked article below, point 13).
- Just-in-time deliveries at supermarkets, regional distribution centres (warehouses) or factories make timing very important and add considerable stress to drivers who may face abuse if they are late, even though it was not their fault, with their employer perhaps facing a fine. And yet on other occasions they might have to wait a long time to offload if drivers before them have been delayed, and often the conditions in waiting areas are poor with few if any facilities.
- Drivers often feel a lack of respect from employers, trainers and the general public.
- Rest and refreshment facilities are often very poor in the UK and generally much worse than in the EU. In the EU, motorway service areas have better parking, toilets, showers and shops. Restaurants are better and cheaper. Dedicated truck stops have supermarkets, laundrettes, showers or even open-air gyms dedicated to making drivers’ lives easier and more pleasant. The UK by contrast often has very poor facilities. Unlike in most EU motorway services, drivers have to pay to park and are faced with poor toilet and eating facilities. ‘Meanwhile, a typical British truck stop is some dusty yard full of potholes on the side of some industrial estate with a portaloo and a “greasy spoon” burger van parked next to it.’
- Hours are long. Even though driving hours are restricted to 10 hours per day (recently extended to 11 hours), the average working day may be much longer as drivers have to wait at distribution centres, fill in increasing amounts of paperwork and help load or unload their vehicle. Also drivers may have to work variable shifts, which leads to disturbed sleeping patterns.
- The work is often physically demanding, especially when a large part of the job involves loading and unloading and moving items from the lorry to where the customer wants them.
- Many vehicles are hard and unpleasant to drive, with leased vehicles often low-spec, dirty, uncomfortable and poorly maintained.
- Many of the jobs are agency jobs that do not offer stable employment.
Although pay is higher than in some parts of the labour market where there are shortages, such as social care and hospitality, pay per hour is still relatively poor when compared with many industries which have better conditions of employment.
The government is allowing more foreign workers into the UK from this month (October); more training places will be offered for potential drivers and the number of driving tests will increase; the government is also encouraging retired drivers or those who have left driving for other jobs to return to the industry.
However, there are shortages of drivers in other EU countries and so it will be difficult to attract additional drivers to the UK from the EU. What is more, with wages and working conditions remaining poor and the labour market remaining tight in other sectors, it might be hard to fill new training places and encourage workers to return to driving. Also, with the average age of drivers being 55, it is likely that the outflow of workers from driving jobs could be large in the coming years.
- Twenty reasons why there is an HGV driver shortage – part one: 1-10
West Country Bylines, Tomasz Oryński (21/9/21)
- Twenty reasons why there is an HGV driver shortage – part 2: reasons 11-20
West Country Bylines, Tomasz Oryński (23/9/21)
- Gas Shortages Awaken Britain to Some Crucial Workers: Truck Drivers
New York Times, Eshe Nelson and Megan Specia (29/9/21)
- Time running out to save UK industry from worker shortages, say business leaders
CNN, Walé Azeez (1/10/21)
- Boris Johnson’s Brexit choices are making Britain’s fuel and food shortages worse
CNN, Hanna Ziady (29/9/21)
- How serious is the shortage of lorry drivers?
BBC News, Reality Check Team (28/9/21)
- Petrol shortage: Is the fuel crisis improving?
BBC News (1/10/21)
- UK visa plan will not fix lorry driver shortage, says boss
BBC News (28/9/21)
- The empty shelves crisis isn’t just down to Covid and Brexit – it’s been decades in the making
The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (17/9/21)
- Emergency visa scheme extended in major U-turn by Boris Johnson
The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (1/10/21)
- Truck driver shortage won’t be solved by quick fix visas – here are three ways forward
The Conversation, Temidayo Akenroye (27/9/21)
- UK lorry driver shortage a stark example of a wider European problem
Euronews, Luke Hurst and Shona Murray (29/9/21)
- Emergency visas won’t tempt European lorry drivers to UK, say haulage chiefs
The Observer, Jon Henley, Michael Savage and James Tapper (25/9/21)
- Labour shortage threatens to cancel out any Brexit dividend
British Meat Processors Association, Industry News, Peter Hardwick (28/9/21)
- How to control a consumer panic
BBC News. Faisal Islam (28/9/21)
- Why are the supply of and demand for lorry drivers relatively wage inelastic?
- Use a marginal productivity diagram to explain the current situation in the market for lorry drivers.
- What policy measures could be adopted to increase the supply of lorry drivers? How successful would these be?
- Is it ‘rational’ for consumers to ‘panic buy’ fuel and other products in short supply?
- Find out why there is a shortage of lorry drivers in the EU. Are any of the explanations similar to those in the UK?
- What are the macroeconomic implications of a shortage of lorry drivers and other key workers?
The effects of the Brexit trade deal are becoming clearer as new data are released. Figures for UK food imports and exports from and to the EU for the first quarter of 2021 have been published by the Food and Drink Federation. These show a 46.6% fall in UK food and drink exports to the EU in Q1 2021 when compared with Q1 2020, and a 55.1% fall when compared with Q1 2019 (before COVID).
The dairy sector has been the hardest hit, with exports of milk and cream to the EU down by more than 90% and exports of cheese down by 67% compared with Q1 2020. Other hard-hit sectors have been soft drinks, fish, potatoes and chicken. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the following chart.)
The Brexit trade deal did not involve the imposition of tariffs on exports and imports. However, with the UK having left the EU single market, there are now many regulatory checks and a considerable amount of paperwork to be completed for each consignment of exports. These frictions are slowing down trade and adding to costs. Although food and drink exports are beginning to recover somewhat, the delays while formalities are completed will have a lasting dampening effect on exports to the EU, especially in the case of perishable goods, such as meat and fish.
Also, farming has been badly affected by labour shortages, with many EU citizens returning to the EU. For example, according to the British Poultry Council (BPC), 10 per cent fewer chickens had been produced since Easter because of worker shortages. Across meat processing generally, similar shortfalls are being recorded because of a lack of labour.
- Find out how exports to the EU from sectors other than food and drink have fared since January this year.
- What are rules of origin? Why are they less likely to apply to food exports to the EU than to manufactured exports?
- Would you describe the Brexit trade deal (the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement) as a ‘free-trade’ deal? Explain.
- What are the particular difficulties for the food and drink sector in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement?
- Find out which parts of the food and drink sector have been particularly affected by labour shortages.
The UK and Australia are set to sign a free-trade deal at the G7 summit in Cornwall on 11–13 June. This will eventually give tariff-free access to each other’s markets, with existing tariffs being phased out over a 15-year period. It is the first trade deal not based on an existing EU template. The government hopes that it will be followed by trade deals with other countries, including New Zealand, Canada and, crucially, the USA.
But what are the benefits and costs of such a deal?
Trade and comparative advantage
The classic economic argument is that free trade allows countries to benefit from the law of comparative advantage. According to the law, provided opportunity costs of various goods differ in two countries, both of them can gain from mutual trade if they specialise in producing (and exporting) those goods that have relatively low opportunity costs compared with the other country. In the case of the UK and Australia, the UK has a comparative advantage in products such as financial services and high-tech and specialist manufactured products. Australia has a comparative advantage in agricultural products, such as lamb, beef and wheat and in various ores and minerals. By increasing trade in these products, there can be a net efficiency gain to both sides and hence a higher GDP than before.
There is clearly a benefit to consumers in both countries from cheaper products, but the gains are likely to be very small. The most optimistic estimate is that the gain in UK GDP will be around 0.01% to 0.02%. Part of the reason is the physical distance between the two countries. For products such as meat, grain and raw materials, shipping costs could be relatively high. This might result in no cost advantage over imports from much nearer countries, such as EU member states.
But modern trade deals are less about tariffs, which, with various WTO trade rounds, are much lower than in the past. Many imports from Australia are already tariff free, with meat currently having a tariff of 12%. Modern trade deals are more about reducing or eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as differing standards and regulations. This is the area where there is a high degree of concern in the UK. Import-competing sectors, such as farming, fear that their products will be undercut by Australian imports produced to lower standards.
Costs of a trade deal
In a perfectly competitive world, with no externalities, labour mobile between sectors and no concerns about income distribution, eliminating tariffs would indeed provide an efficiency gain. But these conditions do not hold. Small farmers are often unable to compete with food producers with considerable market power. The danger is that by driving out such small farmers, food production and supply might not result in lower long-run prices. Much would depend on the countervailing power of supermarkets to continue bearing down on food costs.
But the question of price is probably the least worrying issue. Meat and grain is generally produced at lower standards in Australia than in the UK, with various pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics being used that are not permitted in the UK (and the EU). Unless the trade deal can involve UK standards being enforced on products produced in Australia for export to the UK, UK farmers could be undercut by such imports. The question then would be whether labelling of imported food products could alert consumers to the different standards. And even if they did, would consumers simply prefer to buy the cheaper products? If so, this could be seen as a market failure with consumers not taking into account all the relevant health and welfare costs. Better quality food could be seen as a merit good.
Then there are the broader social issues of the protection of rural industries and societies. Labour is relatively immobile from farming and there could be a rise in rural unemployment, which could have local multiplier effects, leading to the decline of rural economies. Rural ways of life could be seriously affected, which imposes costs on local inhabitants and visitors.
Trade itself imposes environmental costs. Even if it were privately efficient to transport products half way around the world, the costs of carbon emissions and other pollution may outweigh any private gains. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and with the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, it is difficult to align such a trade deal with a greater commitment to cutting carbon emissions.
- UK makes free-trade offer to Australia despite farmers’ fears
BBC News (22/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal: What are the arguments for and against?
BBC News, Chris Morris (21/5/21)
- Australia–UK trade deal can help spur post-pandemic recovery
The Conversation, David Collins (20/5/21)
- Australia will set the precedent for UK trade deals
Prospect, David Henig (21/5/21)
- Britain beefs with Australian farmers as Boris Johnson backs trade deal
Sydney Morning Herald, Mike Foley and Bevan Shields (20/5/21)
- Boris Johnson defends Australia trade deal that will allow cheap foreign meat imports …
Mail Online, David Wilcock (19/5/21)
- City executives raise concerns over hidden costs to trade deals
Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (22/5/21)
- Australia trade deal: Ministers discuss British farmers’ concerns
BBC News (21/5/21)
- Boris Johnson Faces His First Real Brexit Trade Test
Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (21/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal could mean children and patients eating meat reared in ways illegal in UK, warn experts
Independent, Jane Dalton (11/5/21)
- Australian farmers rush to reassure UK over looming free trade agreement
The Guardian, Amy Remeikis (19/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson warned trade deal with Australia could ‘decimate’ British farming
Independent, Adam Forrest (20/5/21)
- Truss’s naivety on trade with Australia could leave the UK exposed
The Observer, Phillip Inman (22/5/21)
- ‘Irresponsible’ Australia trade deal will bring ruin for UK farmers, critics warn
The Observer, James Tapper and Toby Helm (23/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson rejects claim UK-Australia trade deal would see farmers ‘lose their livelihoods’
Sky News, Tom Rayner (19/5/21)
- Small farms have a huge role to play in our sustainable future
The Guardian, Charles, Prince of Wales (23/5/21)
- Farmers’ opposition to UK-Australia trade deal grows
BBC News, Claire Marshall (2/6/21)
- UK livestock farmers fear Australia trade deal will threaten way of life
Financial Times, Judith Evans and Sebastian Payne (8/6/21)
- The UK–Australia trade deal is not really about economic gain – it’s about demonstrating post-Brexit sovereignty
The Conversation, Tony Heron and Gabriel Siles-Brügge (18/6/21)
- Why might the UK government be very keen to sign a trade deal with Australia?
- Does the law of comparative advantage prove that freer trade is more efficient than less free trade? Explain.
- What externalities are involved in the UK trading with Australia? Are they similar to those from trading with the USA?
- If a trade deal resulted in lower food prices but a decline in rural communities, how would you establish whether this would be a ‘price worth paying’?
- If some people gain from a trade deal and others lose and if it were established that the benefits to the gainers were larger than the costs to the losers, would this prove that the deal should go ahead?