Brexit: Jeremy Hunt admits UK-EU trade barriers but rejects rejoining single market

Lorries queue to embark on a ferry at the entrance of the Port of Dover, southeast England, on February 16, 2022. Britain's trade with the EU has been dented by Brexit.
Lorries queue to embark on a ferry at the entrance of the Port of Dover, southeast England, on February 16, 2022. Britain's trade with the EU has been dented by Brexit. Copyright GLYN KIRK / AFP
By Alasdair Sandford
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The UK finance minister acknowledged "trade barriers that exist between us and the EU" but insisted most can be removed over time outside the single market.


The UK's finance minister has said he recognises that Brexit has brought trade barriers with the EU, but rejected calls for Britain to rejoin the single market, arguing that most obstacles can be removed over time.

Jeremy Hunt's comments come amid a growing clamour from the business world for Britain to re-enter the European market that enables free trade via common rules and standards.

Many importers and exporters complain they have been severely hindered by red tape and costs since Brexit, and numerous studies show the economy has suffered as a result.

Speaking the morning after he set out an austere budget plan to address the UK's financial woes, Hunt said "unfettered trade with our neighbours and countries all over the world is very beneficial to growth", but argued that could happen without rejoining the EU's trading mechanism.

"I have great confidence that over the years ahead, we will find outside the single market we are able to remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU. It'll take time, there's a transition as you deliver something like Brexit which obviously people have voted for, and we must make a great success of," the finance minister told BBC radio.

"I don't think it's the right way to boost growth, because it would be against what people were voting for when they supported Brexit, which was to have control of our borders, and membership of the single market requires free movement of people, so I think we can find other ways that will more than compensate for those advantages," he said, arguing that British innovation provided "tremendous potential for growth".

Jeremy Hunt's budget came on the same day the government's official forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), said in its updated economic outlook that "the latest evidence suggests that Brexit has had a significant adverse impact on UK trade".

His acknowledgement of numerous obstacles is in sharp contrast to Boris Johnson's assertion, as prime minister in 2020, that his newly-struck post-Brexit trade deal would bring "no non-tariff barriers to trade", and "if anything allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends".

But despite the growing calls for Britain to rejoin the single market, the main opposition Labour Party is also opposed to the idea.

"There are plenty of things that we could do to fix the mess that the government have made with the Brexit deal that they got," said shadow finance minister Rachel Reeves.

"For example, our agricultural industry needs a veterinary agreement to be able to trade more easily, and that would reduce also some of the backlogs at the borders. But services are our biggest export, and yet we don't have the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Our cultural industries are our huge British strength, and yet our touring artists have to go through so much bureaucracy to be able to tour in Europe," she told the BBC.

Jeremy Hunt said it would take time to achieve the government's aim to reduce net migration and improve domestic skills, without harming the economy. There have also been calls from leading businesses and the main employers body the CBI for tight post-Brexit immigration rules to be loosened to address labour shortages.

"We're trying to put in place that longer term solution, but we are recognising, yes, that we will need migration in the years ahead, and that will be very important for the economy," Hunt said.

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