In the runup to the EU referendum there was much debate on the impact of the single market on business, jobs, workers, services and standards, but its value to consumers was hardly mentioned.
The main consumer issue raised was mobile-phone roaming, which is quite important to younger voters and to those who regularly travel overseas but does not resonate with many older voters, those on lower incomes and those in less affluent areas.
It was only last week when British consumers suddenly found that Marmite and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream would not be quite as readily available that the discussion on the impact for consumers really began.
Now the single market is under scrutiny as never before. It is correct to assert that, post-Brexit, a new relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU’s single market is needed but this is not a simple “leave” or “stay” decision. It requires sophisticated consideration and a multi-layered approach.
The single market is not just about tariff-free trade. There is also a plethora of networks for practical cooperation that have been built up over the past 40 years.
Last month in Ware, Hertfordshire, I saw lifesaving asthma inhalers rolling off the production line. The manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, has just invested £74m in additional capacity at the factory. Their number-one ask, post-Brexit, is to keep close UK/EU cooperation on approvals for medical devices so that innovations can come to market faster.
At the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, MPs from all over the UK visited the Cancer Research UK stand to pledge their support. Clinical trials for those with rare cancers are increasingly run across borders as larger numbers of participants give more meaningful results. The charity’s top priority post-Brexit is to make it easy for British patients, especially children, to take part in joint clinical trials run across many EU countries so that they can access the latest treatment. The common approach across the single market to the sharing of medical data and tissue samples enables these trials.
Patient safety today is also supported by an internal market information sharing system. This enables the UK’s General Medical Council to easily verify the qualifications of doctors from other countries, and check whether they have ever been barred. We are the largest sharer of information on this system. In Brussels, we are looking at using the same system to share information on applications for firearms certificates.
Important for children is the Rapex (rapid exchange of information) alert system. If a dangerous toy is spotted in one market, this system is used to alert trading standards officials all across Europe so that recalls can be made across the supply chain. A common declaration system for imports helped customs authorities seize more than 40m counterfeit goods last year – not just illegal cigarettes but fake medicines, toys and household electrical goods too. Our port operators warn that if full customs declarations are needed for goods moving between the UK and EU this could lead to huge delays at ports and airports. HMRC estimates that the number of customs declarations would increase from 100 million a year to 350 million, and authorities in other EU countries will face similar paperwork on the goods that we currently export to them. If the Conservative government is really committed to preventing unnecessary red tape, then we must look for simpler options.
Some of these single market networks are used only by the 28 EU countries; others are also accessed by EEA (European Economic Area) members, Switzerland or other neighbours. Just as we will need to agree new relationships for sharing information for security, counter-terror and defence post-Brexit, so we should consider whether we wish to retain links to market networks and which ones. Practical consideration on issues such as this will enable both the UK and other EU countries to identify areas where it is mutually beneficial for cooperation to continue.
Politicians across the world have worked for years to tear down barriers to trade but we now risk tipping into a new era fuelled by protectionism. Public support for trade agreements will not be regained if politicians focus only on the small minority of elite consumers who shop across borders. The vast majority of people consume in their local area. Decisions on what a new relationship between the UK and EU should be or what trade agreements we should make with other parts of the world need to be made from the viewpoint of the ordinary consumer.
Having free movement of goods across the single market has on the whole given consumers greater choice, greater diversity and lower prices – despite the propensity for the European political left to add extra costs into the supply chain or ban certain products.
Import prices matter to consumers, and trade deals with other parts of the world will bring new opportunities in the longer term, but currently more than 50% of the products that we import into the UK come from other EU countries. If we have to rely on a World Trade Organisation backstop for these products, then British consumer products will face expensive tariffs, especially on food, and negotiating a new free-trade agreement with Brussels to rectify this could take many years of uncertainty.
So before we walk away from our entire relationship with the single market, it is important to seriously consider strategies to maintain substantial portions of today’s barrier-free trade with the EU. Some politicians in other EU countries may say no to an “à la carte” relationship for the UK, but when one examines the EU’s own “single market scoreboard” on the different approaches that individual countries within the EU sometimes take to implementing single market agreements, it is clear that some of those same countries already take quite an “à la carte” approach themselves.