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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Charlotte Humma October 14th, 2019
Posted In: UK- EU
03 October 2019
L. Alan Winters CB is Professor of Economics and Director of the Observatory.
At last, a chink of clarity. Yesterday’s proposal for the treatment of the Irish economy admits, more or less for the first time officially, that there are trade-offs to Brexit. Suddenly the laws of political physics are restored. You cannot both have your cake and eat it.
The trade-off that has at last dawned on Boris Johnson is that if you want the whole of the UK to choose its own tariffs on goods, a customs border in Ireland is inevitable. And if you want Britain to be able to set its own regulations, then you need a border in the Irish Sea. (more…)
Charlotte Humma October 3rd, 2019
Posted In: UK- EU
14 February 2019
L. Alan Winters CB, Professor of Economics and Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
Charlotte Humma February 14th, 2019
Posted In: UK - Non EU
17 January 2019
Dr Peter Holmes, Reader in Economics at the University of Sussex, Director of Interanalysis and Fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory
Since the Government’s defeat in the House of Commons, there has been a flurry of comments, notably from Steve Baker arguing that Mrs May’s deal can be replaced by some form of Free Trade Agreement.
One must immediately point out that the treaty basis of the Withdrawal Agreement does not include a long-term trade agreement. This can only be negotiated after Brexit. But even if it could be negotiated now, it would not solve the problem of the Irish Border. The UK and the EU in both the Good Friday Agreement and the Dec 2017 joint statement committed themselves not merely to barrier-free trade in goods with no hard border in Ireland, but to the preservation of an All-Island Economy. (more…)
Charlotte Humma January 17th, 2019
Posted In: UK- EU
17 October 2018
Dr Michael Gasiorek is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sussex and a fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
UK-EU negotiations are in a mess. There appears to be a genuine impasse, where the stumbling block is the issue of no border in Ireland. The EU has indicated it is for the UK to make a better offer, while the UK is arguing that the EU needs to be more reasonable. Both are right, if they want to avoid ‘no deal’. (more…)
Charlotte Humma October 17th, 2018
Posted In: UK- EU
01 October 2018
Dr Ingo Borchert is Senior Lecturer in Economics, and Dr Peter Holmes is a Reader in Economics, both are fellows of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
The UK Government is currently proposing to the EU, broadly speaking, to adopt a common rulebook for goods. By contrast, not much if anything is sought in the realm of services, let alone movement of people or other areas of the Single Market. Part of the EU’s response has been that goods and services are so interlinked that one cannot have a goods only single market. Is this response just posturing as part of the negotiations process, or are there real issues with separating goods and services? (more…)
Charlotte Humma October 1st, 2018
Posted In: UK- EU
26 September 2018
L. Alan Winters CB is Professor of Economics and Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory and Nicolo Tamberi is a Research Assistant in Economics for the Observatory
The brusque dismissal of elements of Mrs May’s Chequers plan at the informal meeting in Salzburg last week has stimulated feverish attempts to revive the case for a deep and special UK-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA), under the title of a CETA-plus agreement. This effort received substantial reinforcement from the Institute for Economic Affairs’ paper of 24 September 2018. None of the discussion, however, has dealt seriously with the fact that an FTA will require the introduction of border formalities on UK-EU trade and that these will both violate the commitment to the absence of a border in Ireland and create serious congestion at those ports dealing with UK-EU flows, which will increase trading costs and cut trade with the EU. (more…)
Charlotte Humma September 26th, 2018
Posted In: UK- EU
19 September 2018
Dr Emily Lydgate is a lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex and a fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
In its Chequers White Paper, the UK government has proposed that, in order to facilitate a frictionless border, it will operate a dual customs regime known as a Facilitated Customs Arrangement (‘FCA’). By replacing rules of origin checks at the EU-UK border with internal monitoring, the FCA requires firms to establish ‘robustly’ the destination of their products to ensure that correct duties have been applied, and then, if they wish, to seek rebates if they have been overcharged. Past UKTPO blogs have addressed logistical challenges and strategic downsides of this ‘Fantastically Complicated Alternative’ (see also Does the Chequers Agreement provide any steps to Brexit heaven?)
But would it be compatible with the rules of the World Trade Organization? The precise details of the FCA’s operation remain unclear. Barring a dispute, it’s not possible to settle the question definitively, but the FCA does prima facie pose a risk of WTO non-compliance. We presume that the UK government has undertaken some analysis of this, and that it covers (at least) the following issues. (more…)
Charlotte Humma September 19th, 2018
Posted In: UK- EU
L. Alan Winters CB is Professor of Economics and Director of the Observatory and Julia Magntorn is Research Officer in Economics at the UKTPO.
There is much to digest in the White Paper on The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union and much to clarify. This blog is devoted entirely to trying to understand the Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA) that aims to deliver frictionless trade in goods between the UK and the EU after Brexit.
The FCA matters because trade that is ‘as frictionless as possible’ with the EU is now accepted by nearly everyone as desirable and has been characterised by much of business as essential. It also matters in the short term, however, because it is the UK government’s offer to the EU on how to ensure that there is no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Without a solution to this latter problem there will be no Withdrawal Agreement and no transition. (more…)
Charlotte Humma July 23rd, 2018
Posted In: UK - Non EU