Over the decades, economies have become increasingly interdependent. This process of globalisation has involved a growth in international trade, the spread of technology, integrated financial markets and international migration.
When the global economy is growing, globalisation spreads the benefits around the world. However, when there are economic problems in one part of the world, this can spread like a contagion to other parts. This was clearly illustrated by the credit crunch of 2007–8. A crisis that started in the sub-prime market in the USA soon snowballed into a worldwide recession. More recently, the impact of Covid-19 on international supply chains has highlighted the dangers of relying on a highly globalised system of production and distribution. And more recently still, the war in Ukraine has shown the dangers of food and fuel dependency, with rapid rises in prices of basic essentials having a disproportionate effect on low-income countries and people on low incomes in richer countries.
Moves towards autarky
So is the answer for countries to become more self-sufficient – to adopt a policy of greater autarky? Several countries have moved in this direction. The USA under President Trump pursued a much more protectionist agenda than his predecessors. The UK, although seeking new post-Brexit trade relationships, has seen a reduction in trade as new barriers with the EU have reduced UK exports and imports as a percentage of GDP. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s November 2022 Economic and Fiscal Outlook, Brexit will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15 per cent lower in the long run than if it had remained in the EU.
Many European countries are seeking to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency, both as a means of reducing reliance on Russian oil and gas, but also in pursuit of a green agenda, where a greater proportion of energy is generated from renewables. More generally, countries and companies are considering how to reduce the risks of relying on complex international supply chains.
Limits to the gains from trade
The gains from international trade stem partly from the law of comparative advantage, which states that greater levels of production can be achieved by countries specialising in and exporting those goods that can be produced at a lower opportunity cost and importing those in which they have a comparative disadvantage. Trade can also lead to the transfer of technology and a downward pressure on costs and prices through greater competition.
But trade can increase dependence on unreliable supply sources. For example, at present, some companies are seeking to reduce their reliance on Taiwanese parts, given worries about possible Chinese actions against Taiwan.
Also, governments have been increasingly willing to support domestic industries with various non-tariff barriers to imports, especially since the 2007–8 financial crisis. Such measures include subsidies, favouring domestic firms in awarding government contracts and using regulations to restrict imports. These protectionist measures are often justified in terms of achieving security of supply. The arguments apply particularly starkly in the case of food. In the light of large price increases in the wake of the Ukraine war, many countries are considering how to increase food self-sufficiency, despite it being more costly.
Also, trade in goods involves negative environmental externalities, as freight transport, whether by sea, air or land, involves emissions and can add to global warming. In 2021, shipping emitted over 830m tonnes of CO2, which represents some 3% of world total CO2 emissions. In 2019 (pre-pandemic), the figure was 800m tonnes. The closer geographically the trading partner, the lower these environmental costs are likely to be.
The problems with a globally interdependent world have led to world trade growing more slowly than world GDP in recent years after decades of trade growth considerably outstripping GDP growth. Trade (imports plus exports) as a percentage of GDP peaked at just over 60% in 2008. In 2019 and 2021 it was just over 56%. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Although trade as a percentage of GDP rose slightly from 2020 to 2021 as economies recovered from the pandemic, it is expected to have fallen back again in 2022 and possibly further in 2023.
But despite this reduction in trade as a percentage of GDP, with de-globalisation likely to continue for some time, the world remains much more interdependent than in the more distant past (as the chart shows). Greater autarky may be seen as desirable by many countries as a response to the greater economic and political risks of the current world, but greater autarky is a long way from complete self-sufficiency. The world is likely to remain highly interdependent for the foreseeable future. Reports of the ‘death of globalisation’ are premature!
- Explain the law of comparative advantage and demonstrate how trade between two countries can lead to both countries gaining.
- What are the main economic problems arising from globalisation?
- Is the answer to the problems of globalisation to move towards greater autarky?
- Would the expansion/further integration of trading blocs be a means of exploiting the benefits of globalisation while reducing the risks?
- Is the role of the US dollar likely to decline over time and, if so, why?
- Summarise Karl Polanyi’s arguments in The Great Transformation (see the Daniel W. Drezner article linked below). How well do they apply to the current world situation?
At the time of the 2016 referendum, the clear consensus among economists was that Brexit would impose net economic costs on the UK economy. The size of these costs would depend on the nature of post-Brexit trading relations with the EU. The fewer the new barriers to trade and the closer the alignment with the EU single market, the lower these costs would be.
The Brexit deal in the form of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (see also) applied provisionally from January 2021, after the end of the transition period, and came into force in May 2021. Although this is a free-trade deal in the sense that goods made largely in the UK or EU can be traded tariff-free between the two, the deal does not apply to services (e.g. financial services) or to goods where components made outside the UK or EU account for more than a certain percentage (the ‘rules of origin‘ condition). Also there has been a huge increase in documentation that must be completed to export to or import from the EU.
Even though the nature of the Brexit deal has been clear since it was signed in December 2020, assessing the impact of the extra barriers to trade it has created has been hard given the various shocks that have had a severe impact on the UK (and global) economy. First COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns had a direct effect on output and trade; second the longer-term international supply-chain disruptions have extended the COVID costs beyond the initial lockdowns and acted as a brake on recovery and growth; third the Russian invasion of Ukraine imposed a severe shock to energy and food markets; fourth these factors have created not just a supply shock but also an inflationary shock, which has resulted in central banks seeking to dampen demand by significantly raising interest rates. One worry among analysts was that the negative effects of such shocks might be greater on the UK economy than on other countries.
However, the negative effects of Brexit are now becoming clearer and various institutions have attempted to quantify the costs. These costs are largely in terms of lower GDP than otherwise. This results from:
- reduced levels of trade with the EU, thereby reducing the gains from exploiting comparative advantage;
- increased costs of trade with the EU;
- disruptions to supply chains;
- reduced competition from European firms, with many no longer exporting to the UK because of the costs;
- reduced inward investment;
- labour market shortages, particularly in certain areas such a hospitality, construction, social care and agriculture as many European workers have left the UK and fewer come;
- a reduction in productivity.
Here is a summary of the findings of different organisations.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)
The OBR has argued that Brexit as negotiated in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement:
will reduce long-run productivity by 4 per cent relative to remaining in the EU. This largely reflects our view that the increase in non-tariff barriers on UK-EU trade acts as an additional impediment to the exploitation of comparative advantage.21
In addition the OBR estimates that:
Both exports and imports will be around 15 per cent lower in the long run than if the UK had remained in the EU.21
Recent evidence supports this. According to the OBR:
UK and aggregate advanced economy goods export volumes fell by around 20 per cent during the initial wave of the pandemic in 2020. But by the fourth quarter of 2021 total advanced economy trade volumes had rebounded to 3 per cent above their pre-pandemic levels while UK exports remain around 12 per cent below.22
This assumption was repeated in the November 2022 Economic and Fiscal Outlook (p.26) 23. What is more, new trade deals will make little difference, either because they are a roll-over from previous EU trade deals with the respective country or have only a very small effect (e.g. the trade deal with Australia).
The Bank of England
The Bank of England, ever since the referendum in 2016, has forecast that Brexit would damage trade, productivity and GDP growth. In recent evidence to the House of Commons Treasury Committee5, Andrew Bailey, the Governor, stated that previous work by the Bank concluded that Brexit would reduce productivity by a bit over 3% and that this was still the Bank’s view.
His colleague, Dr Swati Dhingra, stated that, because of Brexit, there was a ‘much bigger slowdown in trade in the UK compared to the rest of the world’. She continued:
The simple way of thinking about what Brexit has done to the economy is that in the period after the referendum, the biggest depreciation that any of the world’s four major economies have seen overnight contributed to increasing prices [and] reduced wages. …We think that number is about 2.6% below the trend that real wages would have been on. Soon afterwards and before the TCA happened came the effects of the uncertainty that was unleashed, which basically translates into reduced business investment and less certainty of the FDI effects. Those tend to be very long-pay things.
She continued that now we are seeing significantly reduced trade directly as a result of the Brexit trade agreement (TCA).
Her colleague, Dr Catherine Mann, argued that ‘the small firms are the ones that are the most damaged, because the cost of the paperwork and so forth is a barrier’. This does not only affect UK firms exporting to the EU but also EU firms exporting to the UK. Reduced imports from EU firms reduces competition in the UK, which tends to lead to higher prices.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies
The IFS has consistently argued that Brexit, because of increased trade barriers with the EU, has reduced UK trade, productivity and GDP. In a recent interview6, its Director, Paul Johnson, stated that ‘Brexit, without doubt, has made us poorer than we would otherwise have been’. That, plus other convulsions, such as the mini-Budget of October 2022, have reduced foreigners’ confidence in the UK, with the result that investment in the UK and trade with the rest of the world have fallen.
In a major Resolution Foundation report24, the authors argued that the effects of Brexit will take time to materialise fully and will occur in three distinct phases. First, in anticipation of permanent effects, the referendum caused sterling to depreciate and this adversely affected household incomes. What is more, the uncertainty about the future caused business investment to fall (but not inward FDI). Second, the Trade and Cooperation Act, by introducing trade barriers, reduced UK trade with the EU. But trade with the rest of the world also fell suggesting that Brexit is impacting UK trade openness and competitiveness more broadly. Third, there will be structural changes to the UK economy over the long-term which will adversely affect economic growth:
A less-open UK will mean a poorer and less productive one by the end of the decade, with real wages expected to fall by 1.8 per cent, a loss of £470 per worker a year, and labour productivity by 1.3 per cent, as a result of the long-run changes to trade under the TCA. This would be equivalent to losing more than a quarter of the last decade’s productivity growth.
One of the key effects of Brexit has been on the labour market and especially on sectors, such as hospitality, agriculture, construction, health and social care. These sectors are experiencing labour shortages, in part due to EU nationals leaving the UK. In 2021, the Nuffield Trust looked at the supply of workers in health and social care25 and found that, as a result of increased bureaucratic hurdles, the number of EU/EFTA-trained nurses had declined since 2016. In social care, new immigration rules have made it virtually impossible to recruit from the EU. A more recent report looked at the recruitment of doctors in four specific specialties.26 In each case, although the number recruited from the EU/EFTA was still increasing, the rate of increase had slowed significantly. The reason appeared to be Brexit not COVID-19.
Research by Coleman Parkes for Ivalua18 shows that 80% of firms found Brexit to have been the biggest cause of supply-chain disruptions in the 12 months to August 2022, with 83% fearing the biggest disruptions from Brexit are yet to come. Brexit was found to have had a bigger effect on supply chains than the war in Ukraine, rising energy costs and COVID-19.
Centre for European Reform
Modelling conducted by John Springford27 used a ‘doppelgängers’ method to show the effects of Brexit on the UK economy. Each doppelgänger is ‘a basket of countries whose economic performance closely matches the UK’s before the Brexit referendum and the end of the transition period’. Comparing the UK’s performance with the doppelgänger can show the difference between leaving and not leaving the UK. Doppelgängers were estimated for GDP, investment (gross fixed capital formation), total services trade (exports plus imports) and total goods trade (ditto).
The results are sobering. In the final quarter of 2021, UK GDP is 5.2 per cent smaller than the modelled, doppelgänger UK; investment is 13.7 per cent lower; and goods trade, 13.6 per cent lower.
Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) (Ireland)
Similar results for UK trade have been obtained by Janez Kren and Martina Lawless in research conducted for the ESRI.28 They used product-level trade flows between the EU and all other countries in the world as a comparison group. This showed a 16% reduction in UK exports to the EU and a 20% reduction in UK imports from the EU relative to the scenario in which Brexit had not occurred.
British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) survey
According to a BCC survey of 1168 businesses33, 92% of which are SMEs, more than three quarters (77%) for which the Brexit deal is applicable say it is not helping them increase sales or grow their business and 56% say they have difficulties in adapting to the new rules for trading goods. The survey shows that UK firms are facing significant challenges in trying to trade with EU countries under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. What is more, 80% of firms had seen the cost of importing increase; 53% had seen their sales margins decrease; and almost 70% of manufacturers had experienced shortages of goods and services from the EU.
Research at the Centre for Business Prosperity, Aston University, by Jun Du, Emine Beyza Satoglu and Oleksandr Shepotylo20, 29 found that UK exports to the EU ‘fell by an average of 22.9% in the first 15 months after the introduction of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement’. The negative effect on UK exports persisted and deepened from January 2021 to March 2022. The research involved comparing actual trade with an ‘alternative UK economy’ model based on the UK having remained in the EU. What is more, the researchers found that there had been a reduction of 42% in the number of product varieties exported to the EU, with a large number of exporters simply ceasing to export to the EU and with many of the remaining exporters streamlining their product ranges.
Research at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance by Jan David Bakker, Nikhil Datta, Richard Davies and Josh De Lyon31 found that leaving the EU added an average of £210 to UK household food bills over the two years to the end of 2021. This amounted to a total cost to consumers of £5.8 billion. This confirmed the findings of previous research30 that the increase in UK-EU trade barriers led to food prices in the UK being 6% higher than they would have been.
Finally, a report from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford32 examined the effects of the ending of the free movement of labour from the EU to the UK. Visas are now required, but ‘low-wage occupations that used to rely heavily on EU workers are now ineligible for work visas, with some limited exceptions for social care and seasonal workers’. Many industries are facing labour shortages. Reasons include other factors, such as low pay and unattractive working conditions, and workers leaving the workforce during the pandemic and afterwards. But the end of free movement appears to have exacerbated these existing problems.
- The Brexit effect: how leaving the EU hit the UK
Financial Times film (18/10/22)
- What impact is Brexit having on the UK economy?
Brexit and the UK economy, Ros Atkins (29/10/22)
- Why Brexit is damaging the UK economy both now and in the future
Economics Help on YouTube, Tejvan Pettinger (5/12/22)
- Why the Costs of Brexit keep growing for the UK economy
Economics Help on YouTube, Tejvan Pettinger (17/10/22)
- Treasury Committee (see also)
Parliament TV (25/11/22) (see 15:03:00 to 15:08:12) (Click here for a transcript: see Q637 to Q641)
- UK economy made worse by ‘own goals’ like Brexit and Truss mini-budget, IFS economist says
Sky News, Paul Johnson (IFS) (18/11/22)
- Brexit and the economy: the hit has been ‘substantially negative’
Financial Times, Chris Giles (30/11/22)
- ‘What have we done?’: six years on, UK counts the cost of Brexit
The Observer, Toby Helm, Robin McKie, James Tapper & Phillip Inman (25/6/22)
- Brexit did hurt the City’s exports – the numbers don’t lie
Financial News, David Wighton (9/11/22)
- Brits are starting to think again about Brexit as the economy slides into recession
CNBC, Elliot Smith (23/11/22)
- Brexit has cracked Britain’s economic foundations
CNN, Hanna Ziady (24/12/22)
- Mark Carney: ‘Doubling down on inequality was a surprising choice’
Financial Times, Edward Luce (14/10/22)
- Brexit: Progress on trade deals slower than promised
BBC News, Ione Wells & Brian Wheeler (2/12/22)
- How Brexit costs this retailer £1m a month in sales
BusinessLive, Tom Pegden (22/11/22)
- Brexit Is Hurting The UK Economy, Bank Of England Official Says
HuffPost, Graeme Demianyk (16/11/22)
- Brexit and drop in workforce harming economic recovery, says Bank governor
The Guardian, Richard Partington (16/11/22)
- Brexit a major cause of UK’s return to austerity, says senior economist
The Guardian, Anna Isaac (14/11/22)
- 80% of UK businesses say Brexit caused the biggest supply chain disruption in the last 12 months
- Brexit added £210 to household food bills, new research finds
Sky News, Faye Brown (1/12/22)
- Brexit changes caused 22.9% slump in UK-EU exports into Q1 2022 – research
Research and analysis
- Brexit analysis
- The latest evidence on the impact of Brexit on UK trade
OBR (March 2022)
- Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2022 (PDF)
- The Big Brexit (PDF)
Resolution Foundation, Swati Dhingra, Emily Fry, Sophie Hale & Ningyuan Jia (June 2022)
- Going it alone: health and Brexit in the UK
Nuffield Trust, Mark Dayan, Martha McCarey, Tamara Hervey, Nick Fahy, Scott L Greer, Holly Jarman, Ellen Stewart and Dan Bristow (20/12/21)
- Has Brexit affected the UK’s medical workforce?
Nuffield Trust, Martha McCarey and Mark Dayan (27/11/22)
- What can we know about the cost of Brexit so far?
Centre for European Reform, John Springford (9/6/22)
- Brexit reduced overall EU-UK goods trade flows by almost one-fifth
Economic and Social Research Institute (Ireland), Janez Kren and Martina Lawless (19/10/22)
- Post-Brexit UK Trade – An Update (PDF)
Centre for Business Prosperity, Aston University, Jun Du, Emine Beyza Satoglu and Oleksandr Shepotylo (November 2022)
- Post-Brexit imports, supply chains, and the effect on consumer prices (PDF)
UK in a Changing Europe, Jan David Bakker, Nikhil Datta, Josh De Lyon, Luisa Opitz and Dilan Yang (25/4/22)
- Non-tariff barriers and consumer prices: evidence from Brexit
Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, Jan David Bakker, Nikhil Datta, Richard Davies and Josh De Lyon (December 2022)
- How is the End of Free Movement Affecting the Low-wage Labour Force in the UK?
Migration Observatory, University of Oxford, Madeleine Sumption, Chris Forde, Gabriella Alberti and Peter William Walsh (15/8/22)
- The Trade and Cooperation Agreement: Two Years On – Proposals For Reform by UK Business
British Chambers of Commerce (21/12/22)
- The Detriments of Brexit
Yorkshire Bylines (June 2022) (see also)
- Summarise the negative effects of Brexit on the UK economy.
- Why is it difficult to quantify these effects?
- Explain the ‘doppelgängers’ method of estimating the costs of Brexit? How reliable is this method likely to be?
- How have UK firms attempted to reduce the costs of exporting to the EU?
- Is Brexit the sole cause of a shortage of labour in many sectors in the UK?
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?