Leaving the EU means that UK politicians have taken back control of – and responsibility for – large swathes of policy previously decided at EU level. Ministers are keen to exercise this new autonomy and demonstrate that there are opportunities from doing things differently outside the EU, but debate continues about whether the government has capitalised on these and delivered ‘benefits of Brexit’.

What benefits of Brexit were promised before the referendum?

Although some specific policy areas were singled out as targets for reform during the Brexit campaign, notably freedom of movement, [1] the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies,[2] alongside general ‘EU red tape’, [3] few specific proposals were made.

But the official Leave campaign’s slogan – “Take Back Control” – highlighted the promise of sovereignty and the freedom for the UK to set its own rules outside the EU. This led the government to negotiate a relationship with the EU that prioritized regulatory freedom over frictionless trade, which in turn led the EU to insist on special arrangements for Northern Ireland, as set in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement

Where does the Brexit opportunities agenda sit in government?

Working closely with departments across Whitehall, the Cabinet Office has largely driven the Brexit opportunities agenda. In September 2021 a ‘Brexit opportunities unit’ was created to support Lord Frost – undertaking both a coordinating function to draw together Brexit opportunities work across Whitehall and a policy function, identifying areas for reform outside the EU. [4]

When Frost resigned in December 2021, there was a gap in responsibility for the Brexit opportunities agenda until, in February 2022 Jacob Rees-Mogg was appointed to a newly created role in the cabinet office of minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency.

How has the government identified the benefits of Brexit?

In February 2021, the prime minister asked prominent Conservative Party backbencher Sir Iain Duncan Smith to lead the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) to recommend how the government should make use of its regulatory freedoms outside the EU. The taskforce published a report in June 2021, making over 100 recommendations for reform. [5]

In addition, various government departments have also set out proposals for change. These include the Kalifa review on fintech [6] (led by HMT), consultations on subsidy regulation [7] (led by BEIS) and a consultation on more permissive rules for genetic engineering (led by Defra). [8]

In summer 2021, BEIS also undertook a consultation on the process for making new regulation, set out in the Better Regulation Framework, with a view to making the UK the ‘best regulated economy in the world’. [9]

The most comprehensive account of the government’s approach to the Brexit opportunities agenda was the ‘The benefits of Brexit’ white paper, published in January 2022 by the Cabinet Office Brexit Opportunities Unit, two years after the UK formally left the EU. [10]

What does the Benefits of Brexit white paper say?

The 105-page Benefits of Brexit paper argues that leaving the EU allowed the UK to ‘seize the incredible opportunities that our freedom presents’. It is split into three sections:

‘Our achievements so far’ lists 76 ‘benefits’ credited to Brexit that the government says have already been achieved.

‘The best regulated economy in the world’ sets out the government’s response to the BEIS consultation on the better regulation framework, with a new framework underpinned by five regulatory principles such as ‘proportionality’ and ‘recognising what works’, alongside a review of retained EU law.

‘A world of future opportunities’ sets out the government’s vision for future changes which it claims Brexit made possible, including themes such as levelling up. This broad section often repeats ‘achievements so far’, and covers nearly all areas of government policy.

The distinction between the types of policies included in these sections is not always clear-cut.

What does the government say it has achieved so far?

The paper splits its achievements so far into seven themes ranging from Taking Back Control to Protecting animal welfare standards. Collectively, they span changes in regulation, tax, spending, trade and international affairs. The individual ‘achievements’ within these categories are diverse, from significant policy shifts (like the introduction of a new immigration system and farm support regime), to small moves (such as reintroducing blue passports and crown stamps on pint glasses), with six promising reviews or consultations.

Who has been responsible for delivering Brexit’s ‘achievements so far’? 

The ‘achievements so far’ are being led by a range of government departments, but are not evenly distributed across Whitehall. The prevalence of BEIS, DIT and HMT is indicative of how significant a role the EU played in areas such as business regulation, trade and financial services – while the Ministry of Justice has not delivered any.

However, the mix of large and small policy changes in the ‘achievements’ means that simply looking at the number each department is responsible for does not paint a useful picture. For instance, while BEIS claims 14 benefits, including the crown stamp and a review of imperial markings regulation, DLUCH’s two ‘benefits’ include levelling up the UK,

Have the ‘achievements’ actually been delivered?  

The 76 ‘benefits’ are framed as ‘achieved so far’, but the picture is more complicated.

Since leaving the EU the UK now has a new immigration system, is almost entirely independent from the European Court of Justice (bar its role in Northern Ireland under the Protocol) and is reshaping the agricultural support regime.

But many of the ‘achievements’ are still in the policy development stage or have yet to start, with reform of financial service regulation and the review of retained EU law still underway. And for ‘achievements’ expressed as outcomes rather than specific actions – such as ‘defending UK economic interests’ – it is difficult to say these have been fully delivered.

Others, although completed, were delivered as a direct consequence of leaving the EU (like retaking a seat at the WTO as an independent trading nation), rather than specific UK government action.

Can the ‘achievements’ be credited to Brexit?

Most of the government’s Brexit ‘achievements’ would have been difficult or impossible to deliver as an EU member. For example, the UK could not have ended free movement for EU nationals, developed its own sanctions regime or struck independent trade deals.

However, some ‘achievements’ are arguably harder to pitch as ‘benefits’ of leaving the EU.

Some could have been delivered when the UK was a member state – such as the establishment of freeports, the AUKUS defence deal between the UK, Australia and US, and reintroduction of blue passports. However, leaving the EU may have provided a political opportunity for change that would not have occurred inside the EU. [11]

Some changes have been made to fill gaps created when the UK left the EU, rather than to allow the UK to pursue a fundamentally different course outside the EU. For example, the UK REACH chemicals regime simply replaces the functions of the EU REACH. [12] Similarly, the new Turing student exchange scheme partly replaces the EU Erasmus scheme, which the UK chose not to participate in after Brexit, with many arguing the Turing scheme is less extensive. [13] The UK does, however now have autonomy over these policy areas.

Some changes are less radical than they appear. For instance, while the government has made much of allowing crown stamps to be printed on pint glasses, EU rules did not prevent this, so long as the EU CE product standards marking was present. [14]

In many areas, EU rules have also changed (or are being changed) since the end of the transition period, sometimes moving in a similar direction to UK reforms – for example on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and regulation of digital markets (on which EU legislation is moving faster). [15] This means that the gap between UK and EU rules may end up smaller than it appears.

Do the ‘achievements’ apply to the whole UK? 

Many ‘achievements’ apply UK-wide – such as the introduction of the new immigration system and agreement of new trade deals. In some cases this has led to objections from the devolved administrations.

But not all the ‘benefits’ identified are UK-wide. In devolved areas, the UK government is only responsible for England, and so, for example, the Health and Social Care Bill or agricultural support reforms only apply to England. As devolved administrations make their own policy decisions in these areas, this can result in divergence between the four nations.

In some areas where EU powers have returned to the devolved administrations, the four governments have agreed ‘common frameworks’ to prevent problems for businesses that could arise as a result of different policies across the UK, and to facilitate a common approach. They have been agreed in areas such as chemicals regulation, agriculture and food. [16] Common frameworks set out processes to manage divergence, including designating fora for discussion and dispute resolution.

There are also some areas for which, under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland, meaning some policy changes cannot apply there (or to the same extent). For example, Northern Ireland remains in the EU state aid regime for subsidy control.

What reaction has the Brexit opportunities white paper received? 

Reactions to the paper were generally critical, although it was overshadowed by the Sue Gray report into allegations of covid rule breaking in Number 10.

While some Remainers accused the government of misleading the public about how many opportunities exist, [17] some prominent figures who supported Brexit accused it of masking its failure to deliver enough of the substantial benefits. [18]

The new ‘Brexit Freedoms’ bill – which was announced on the same day and will make it easier to change inherited EU law without primary legislation [19] – received more attention, and attracted criticism for risking a reduction in parliamentary scrutiny. [20]

What is next for the Brexit opportunities agenda?

On taking on his new role, Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote an article in The Sun asking readers for thoughts on which EU regulations they would like reviewed,[21] and in March 2022 told MPs that he wanted to get rid of ‘gold-plated’ EU regulations. [22]

The ‘future opportunities’ section of the white paper highlights the government’s broad plans for its wider policy agenda. While some items have a strong Brexit link (like reform of genetic technologies regulation and EU railway standards), it is unclear whether others will be seen as Brexit-related outside of government.

The Brexit opportunities unit in the Cabinet Office is leading the review of retained EU law and associated Brexit Freedoms Bill. As part of the paper’s commitment to revisit how new regulation is made, the government has also promised to overhaul the better regulation framework – although details remain sparce. [23]

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  1. Morris M, Free movement and the EU referendum, Institute for Public Policy Research, 25 March 2016, https://www.ippr.org/publications/free-movement-and-the-eu-referendum
  2. Tasker J, ‘9 Brexit farming promises – where are we one year on?’, Farmers Weekly, 19 June 2017, 9 Brexit farming promises – where are we one year on? – Farmers Weekly (fwi.co.uk); ‘PM and Boris clash over EU fishing laws’, BBC, 5 June 2016 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36453416
  3. Gordon S, ‘British businesses eye Brexit as cure for red tape’, Financial Times, 9 May 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/6e9f3e5e-12c9-11e6-839f-2922947098f0
  4. Cabinet Office, ‘Search for head of the new Brexit Opportunities Unit begins’, press release, 16 June 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/search-for-head-of-the-new-brexit-opportunities-unit-begins
  5. Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform independent report, 16 June 2021, Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform independent report – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
  6. HM Treasury, The Kalifa Review of UK FinTech, 26 February 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-kalifa-review-of-uk-fintech
  7. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Subsidy control: designing a new approach for the UK, consultation outcome, 3 February 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/subsidy-control-designing-a-new-approach-for-the-uk
  8. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Genetic technologies regulation, consultation outcome, 3 February 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/genetic-technologies-regulation
  9. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Reforming the framework for better regulation, consultation outcome, 22 July 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reforming-the-framework-for-better-regulation
  10. Cabinet Office, The benefits of Brexit, 31 January 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-benefits-of-brexit
  11. Lee G, ‘The government’s four dubious ‘Benefits of Brexit’’, 4 News FactCheck, 31 January 2022, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-the-governments-four-dubious-benefits-of-brexit
  12. Health and Safety Executive, UK REACH explained, no date, UK REACH: UK REACH Explained (hse.gov.uk)
  13. FEWeek, Turing Scheme: How does the UK programme compare to Erasmus?, 9 March 2021, https://feweek.co.uk/the-turing-scheme-has-big-boots-to-fill/
  14. Lee G, ‘The government’s four dubious ‘Benefits of Brexit’’, 4 News FactCheck, 31 January 2022, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-the-governments-four-dubious-benefits-of-brexit
  15. Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Oral evidence: Post-pandemic economic growth: state aid and post-Brexit competition policy, HC 742, 1 February 2022, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/3425/pdf/
  16. Joint Ministerial Committee communiqué: 16 October 2017, GOV.UK, 16 October 2017, retrieved on 16 March 2020, www.gov.uk/government/publications/joint-ministerial-committee-communique-16-october-2017
  17. Chapman B, ‘Government accused of ‘trolling’ British businesses with ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report’, The Independent, 1 February 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/brexit-benefits-report-uk-businesses-b2005036.html
  18. Lord Hannan, ‘Daniel Hannan: The Government’s new Brexit vision looks like thin, watery, tasteless gruel’, Conservative Home, 2 February 2022, https://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2022/02/daniel-hannan-the-governments-new-brexit-vision-looks-like-thin-watery-ta…, Chapman B, ‘Government accused of ‘trolling’ British businesses with ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report’, The Independent, 1 February 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/brexit-benefits-report-uk-businesses-b2005036.html, Chapman B, ‘Government accused of ‘trolling’ British businesses with ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report’, The Independent, 1 February 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/brexit-benefits-report-uk-businesses-b2005036.html
  19. Lord Frost, Brexit Opportunities: Review of Retained EU Law, Statement made to House of Lords, 9 December 2021, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2021-12-09/hlws445
  20. Oliver Dowden, Tweet, 31 January 2022, https://twitter.com/oliverdowden/status/1488059483133784066, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Tweet, 31 January 2022, https://twitter.com/markjenkinsonmp/status/1488082910855016451
  21. Rees-Mogg J, ‘I want Sun readers to write to me and tell me of ANY petty old EU regulation that should be abolished’, The Sun, 9 February 2022, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/17603553/sun-readers-tell-me-of-eu-regulation-abolished/
  22. Stone J, ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg says his vision for Brexit is scrapping ‘gold-plated’ EU regulations’, The Independent, 22 March 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-jacob-rees-mogg-eu-regulations-b2041259.html
  23. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Reforming the Framework for Better Regulation: Summary of Responses to the Consultation, 31 January 2022, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1050947/reforming-framework-for-…
Update date: 
Friday, April 1, 2022

Original source – The Institute for Government

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