Let’s be honest, we’re still squandering post-Brexit opportunities for Britain
Is Brexit a proven failure? Remainers latching onto the associated costs of leaving the customs bloc certainly think so. Some recent polls even indicate a majority for rejoining the European Union. Meanwhile, evidence of the benefits of taking back control appears scant. The government delivered a faster vaccine programme, signed trade deals and talked the big talk about taking advantage of our newfound freedoms.
Yet the regulatory divergence so far is minimal. EU legislation which applied to the UK was retained in domestic UK law on Brexit day, 31 January, 2020. Most of this, with some small technical changes, remains in place – whether or not in Britain’s interest.
There are notable exceptions, like rules that will enable British farmers to use gene-edited crops and the “Edinburgh reforms” for financial services. There is also a plan to “sunset” retained EU law by the end of next year, but with the risk that this is simply transferred to UK statute unchanged.
This state of affairs should be disappointing to everyone. For Brexiters, it is squandering an opportunity to upend the bureaucratic stranglehold of EU rules. But even Remainers, particularly those who accepted the result of the referendum, won’t welcome the government’s inertia towards seizing opportunities that could make the UK more prosperous.
Opponents of deregulation often insist that there really isn’t much capacity for the UK to diverge, either because EU law protects necessary rights or because changing rules will make things harder for UK businesses that want to trade with the continent.
But the truth is a little more convoluted. There are plenty of potential beneficial changes; it’s just that these are often relatively small or industry-specific and unlikely to make headlines. This reflects how the EU created millions of words of red tape, pertaining to every facet of the economy. Taken separately, they have little impact. Taken together, repealing and replacing these rules will add up to a lot.
Consider, for instance, net neutrality rules. The principle is that internet service providers, like BT or Vodafone, should treat all web traffic equally. This, we are told, will ensure users can access all content and services while enabling new innovative web applications. There’s just one, pretty central problem. The regulations are unnecessary and damaging to innovation.
The UK has only adhered to net neutrality since 2016, as a result of the EU’s Open Internet Access Regulations. Previously, the UK relied on a mixture of competition, transparency and self-regulation to safeguard an open internet. This was widely acknowledged by politicians, regulators, and independent analysts, to be sufficient. A 2015 analysis by Wix, found that “almost all UK internet users have virtually full access to the internet”.
Net neutrality limits the ways in which internet service providers can manage congestion on their network during peak times. It will make it difficult to prioritise data-intensive time-sensitive applications, such as hazard and collision information to self-driving cars or special services for the metaverse.
The rules also prevent innovative product offerings, including zero-rating or a package that priorities gaming. These regulations also forbid network operators from reaching deals with large content providers, like Netflix, to pay for network maintenance and upgrades – slowing investment in 5G and full-fibre broadband.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone voted Leave to unshackle the UK from the constraints of net neutrality. But this niche rule is one of many that restrict businesses’ room for manoeuvre. Remove them, and we might finally be able to talk about Brexit as something other than a failure.