Written for The Telegraph.
“What has Brexit ever done for us?” to redirect the question originally asked about the Romans in a famous Monty Python sketch. On the seventh anniversary of the referendum, it is being asked by Brexit critics who, as in the original sketch, are reluctant to hear the answer. Which is: “quite a lot actually”. With more to come.
Most fundamentally, Brexit has, as promised, given us back democratic control over our laws, money and borders. How those powers are used is up to Parliament and government. But if we don’t like their decisions, we can chuck the blighters out – which we could never do to EU commissioners.
Dismissing democracy, Monty Python style critics ask, but how has it affected people’s lives? For a start, Brexit has saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives. Without Brexit, we would never have developed, approved or rolled out vaccines so fast. Every day counted, since hundreds of people were dying daily. The claim that had we remained in the EU we could theoretically have opted out of the EU of its Covid policies is inane. No member state did so. And EU supporters across parties opposed leaving the EU Medicines Agency and urged joining the EU vaccine procurement programme.
Brexit is also saving British taxpayers billions of pounds. As members we would have had to contribute our 14 per cent share of the €800 billion EU Covid Recovery Fund and got only a fraction of that back. The referendum campaign bus slogan “We send £350 million a week to the EU” was criticised since that was the gross figure. However, had we stayed in our net contribution last year would have risen to hundreds of millions per week.
On foreign affairs, Britain is no longer bound by the EU “doctrine of sincere cooperation”. So we were free to take a lead in supporting Ukraine when the EU were equivocal. Germany even banned UK planes flying arms to Kiev through its airspace. Our bold example helped catalyse an EU change of heart. Paradoxically, we had more influence on EU policy from outside than within.
But how has our our freedom to change old EU laws benefitted us?
Remember the HGV driver crisis in late 2021? Drivers’ pay was held down for years as East European drivers displaced Brits. During the pandemic, EU drivers went home and Brits left to deliver online retail orders. So, when the economy recovered from the Covid lockdowns, there was an acute shortage of HGV drivers. Petrol stations were closed, and food deliveries disrupted. Now the shortage has virtually disappeared. Why? Because the Government resisted calls to issue thousands of visas. So pay rose, attracting recruits. Employers expanded training. Ministers set up training “bootcamps”. Above all, they exploited Brexit freedoms to alter old EU rules and speed up training and granting permits. Now, thousands of Brits have better paid jobs.
We have all been spared a £50 increase in motor insurance premiums because the Government legislated to reverse a European Court judgement which would have added that amount.
Our farmers will be able to plant gene-edited crops. They were previously banned under EU law, even though they are harmless in themselves and reduce use of noxious pesticides and fertilisers.
Animal lovers can be pleased that the UK has been able to largely ban the export of live animals and crack down on smuggling puppies into the UK. We reduced VAT on energy products and female sanitary products – previously blocked by EU law. Instead of funding EU subsidies to landowners just for owning land – we now reward farmers for environmentally friendly practices. 100 tariffs on components used by our manufacturers were abolished.
This is a sample of changes resulting from Brexit. You may never have heard of them. The reluctance of mainstream media to mention Brexit successes has been compounded by disgruntled Leavers, so angry at failure to do more that they ignore initial successes.
It is true that potential gains far exceed achievements so far. It is time for both Leavers and Remainers to accept former Bank of England Governor, Mervyn King’s wise words: “There was a case for remaining in the EU to have some, albeit small, influence over the laws governing us. And there was a case for leaving to regain control over those laws. But there is no case for leaving then not exercising the power to set our own laws”.
Meanwhile, we are told that all this is offset by the harm Brexit would do to our exports to Europe. The House of Lords Library charts the value and volume of our goods exports (excluding erratic items) every quarter since before the referendum. It shows that exports to the EU have defied predictions and fared slightly better than exports to the rest of the world. Any adverse effect due to EU border costs is dwarfed by other factors.