14 October 2019
Michael Gasiorek is Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex and a Fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
With the current state of negotiations between the UK and the EU it is easy to see why attention is focussed on the politics of a possible agreement. The contentious issue is, of course, that of the Irish border. However, the focus on the politics means that there has been little discussion of the economic impacts and specifically of the vulnerability of the Northern Irish economy to the decisions being made.
Now, even prior to the 2016 referendum Boris Johnson made it clear that, from his perspective, the decision to leave the EU was all to do with politics, and he was repeatedly dismissive that there would be negative economic consequences. He argued that:
“the economic advantages for Britain [of being in the EU] are either overstated or non-existent” and that “we will trade as much as ever before, if not more”. 
The logical corollary of this argument is that leaving the EU, by leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market, would have a negligible impact. I have just been to the island of Ireland and it is quite clear that businesses and stakeholders do not remotely buy into this story.
What many commentators have been saying for a long time is that there are only two solutions to the problem of maintaining no border and no customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Either the UK remains in the Customs Union and Single Market; or Northern Ireland only remains in the Customs Union and the Single Market. Worryingly it is still not clear how well this has been understood by those negotiating supposedly on behalf of the UK, who seemed to think a workable solution could be found with just Northern Ireland in the Single Market, but out of the Customs Union together with Great Britain. The latest ‘landing-zone’ for an agreement appears to be based on a fudge with Northern Ireland being both in a customs union with GB, but also in the EU Customs Union.
Worryingly too is the lack of discussion about the economic consequences for Northern Ireland of what is being discussed. ALL of the above outcomes will directly increase the costs of trade for firms in Northern Ireland – either with Ireland or with Great Britain or with both. And if the negotiations fail, the costs of exporting to Ireland will rise even more, while at the same time Northern Irish firms will be exposed to considerably more competition from imports arising from the UK governments’ ‘no-deal’ tariffs.
The economic reasons (see box below for some key relevant statistics) underlying these substantial concerns derive from several factors:
These concerns are both immediate but also longer term. The immediate short run, (which in the event of ‘no deal’ is the very short run) impacts mean that the changes in the costs of selling and buying from the Republic of Ireland, from Great Britain, and from the rest of the world will make Northern Irish firms less competitive and less able to survive. For example, the Northern Ireland’s Department of the Economy analysis of a ‘No deal’ suggests a possible decrease in exports of between 11% to 19%, and up to 40,000 jobs being vulnerable. 45% of firms surveyed in Ireland and Northern Ireland stated that Brexit was one of the top issues they are currently facing.
But there are also serious longer term concerns. A key driver of prosperity and economic growth in any region or country is the underlying physical and human capital. With regard to the former the worry is a ‘brain-drain’ to the extent that economic opportunities diminish in Northern Ireland. Any increase in tensions, any rise in security issues, is likely to exacerbate this. With regard to the latter, there may be an overall decline in investment and/or there will clearly be an incentive for some firms to relocate into the Republic of Ireland to avoid the higher costs of trading from Northern Ireland. 
So while the politics matters, and nothing can be agreed unless the politics aligns, it is important not to forget the economic realities that will be faced by the firms and people in Northern Ireland. It is not the case that the impacts will be negligible or non-existent. The consequences will be real, and potentially very long-lasting. Yet, it does not seem that this is a high consideration or priority for the UK government because of the domination of the political imperatives.
The importance of small firms:
 Boris Johnson speech on the EU referendum, 9th May 2016, https://www.conservativehome.com/parliament/2016/05/boris-johnsons-speech-on-the-eu-referendum-full-text.html
 The current proposals entail customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because the UK intends to leave the EU Customs Union, and regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland because Great Britain will leave the EU’s Single Market
 “Shock Absorption Capacity of Firms in Ireland and Northern Ireland”, InterTradeIreland
 InterTradeIreland, Business Monitor, 2019 (Q2)
 InterTradeIreland, Business Monitor, 2018 (Q4) reports that ‘almost a third of large businesses have experienced a negative impact on their investment decisions because of Brexit’
 NISRA, Overview of Northern Ireland Trade, Factsheet, https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/eu-exit-analysis/eu-exit-trade-analysis
 “Export Participation of firms on the Island of Ireland”, InterTradeIreland.
 Firms with less than 50 employees. NISRA, “Overview of Northern Ireland Trade”, Factsheet, https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/eu-exit-analysis/eu-exit-trade-analysis
 Firms with more than 50 employees. Source: NISRA, Overview of Northern Ireland Trade, Factsheet, https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/eu-exit-analysis/eu-exit-trade-analysis; and “Export Participation of firms on the Island of Ireland”, InterTradeIreland.
 “Shock Absorption Capacity of firms in Ireland and Northern Ireland”, IntertradeIreland.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.
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