By Tom O’Leary
The Brexit negotiations are entering a decisive phase, with leading UK business organisations saying they will not invest and must consider whether they relocate if there is no agreement on a transition phase and there is clear progress on trade talks. For its part the Tory Cabinet is deferring any discussion on its key aims for EU trade talks, despite the pretence it is clamouring for them to begin. Any decision on the desired new relationship with the EU would probably lead to Cabinet splits, so discussion is being avoided.
The potential damage to the economy and living standards can be gauged in terms of jobs. Chart 1 below shows the number of UK jobs that are directly dependent on exports. In OECD jargon, these are the totals of ‘domestic employment in the UK embodied on overseas final demand’.
Separately, the EU directly accounts for 2.8 million of the total. As elsewhere, this is only the direct total not including indirectly-supported jobs and has also probably grown since. Furthermore, through the EU the UK currently has some type of ‘free trade’ deal with between 50 and 60 countries. In reality, these deals are for lower tariffs and non-tariff barriers than would otherwise apply through World Trade Organisation rules, without being in the tariff-free regime of the Single Market.
The effect of leaving the EU Single Market would be threefold. First, any new tariffs or non-tariff barriers between the UK and the EU would raise prices of production that would lead to higher prices overall. Producers may try to mitigate these by lowering UK wages and relocating jobs to within the Single Market area. A relatively small increase in these barriers or tariffs may lead to a much larger fall in wages/loss of jobs. A car manufacturer’s profit margin may be, say, 10% but as the tariffs on components range from just under 3% to 10% for complete cars, this would be a large part of total profits, or all of it. The incentive to drive down wages and/or relocate would then be very great.
Secondly, similar considerations would apply to all those countries where the UK currently has a trade deal via its membership of the EU. They too would want to lower costs with lower wages and/or consider relocating. In addition, simple calculations about the respective size of markets may also prompt relocations from the UK to the Single Market area.
Thirdly, these various trade deals usually contain little or nothing at all about trade in services. Services tend to be more thorny issues, not least because freer trade in services means more liberalised immigration regimes, as services are essentially about people (finance, accountancy, law, education, and so on). Yet it is in the services sector where the UK economy has a clear advantage, and currently benefits from the highest level of liberalisation in the Single Market. In 2016, UK exports of services accounted for one quarter of total exports.
Brexiteers argue that the EU is one of the slower-growing regions of the world economy. This is correct. But nothing in Brexit will raise the level of exports or the jobs that depend on them. Table 1 below shows the growth in employment by exports from regions and countries from 1995 to 2011 (the full range of the OECD data).
Total UK direct employment dependent on exports rose from 20.9% in 1995 to 22.5% in 2011. This is a concrete measure of the growth of the international division of labour, or what Marx termed the socialisation of production. In key sectors the change has been dramatic, so that in 1995 roughly half of all employment in the machinery and equipment sectors was dependent on exports, by 2011 it was over 70%. For transport equipment (including cars) employment rose from just under half to more than two-thirds.
Total non-OECD export-related employment has been growing much more strongly than OECD export-related employment. This reflects the much stronger economic growth of the non-OECD economies. In all cases, these data belie the claim that ‘X country is taking our jobs’. The reality is that increasing trade is increasing UK jobs.
The two most important non-OECD countries in terms of creating jobs in the UK are China then India. Within the OECD bloc the US and then the EU itself are the areas creating the greatest number of UK jobs. Within the EU28, Spain has been the most important country for UK job-creation. The UK’s much lower level of competitiveness means it is not gaining German, French and other export-related jobs. Together these four, the US, China, India and the EU are responsible for more than 700,000 new UK jobs in the period 1995-2011, or 60 per cent of total new directly export-related jobs.
In Trumpenomics there is a reactionary idea that freer trade arrangements such as NAFTA have destroyed US jobs. In reality, the US has added about 1 million jobs based on exports to Canada and Mexico since 1995, a year after NAFTA came into force. Unfortunately, this type of crude mercantilism has much wider support than Trump and his delusional supporters. It is expressed as the idea that that the growth in imports exceed the growth in exports, then the decline in net exports is economically detrimental.
But the growth in the international division of labour/socialisation of production represented by rising trade both increases jobs and their productivity, so raising living standards. As Adam Smith pointed out, if coal is produced in Newcastle and then it is used in smelting, the citizens of Newcastle may buy the metal products with the proceeds of their coal production. This is true whether the smelting takes place in Aberdeen or Amsterdam. In either case the smelting operations create jobs in Newcastle.
A withdrawal from the Single Market would go against the tide of economic development and current international practice. It would unilaterally replace a tariff-free regime with new tariffs and non-tariff barriers. It would therefore cost an unknown but large number of UK jobs.