After six months in which little happened other than speculation, the tempo of activity surrounding Britain’s plans to leave the EU has speeded up. ‘Known unknowns’ still with us (before the triggering of Article 50) are any proposed amendments to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill from the House of Lords; and (after the triggering of Article 50) – how the EU will react. There’s still uncertainty as to whether the EU will want to be seen to punish the UK for leaving, or whether economic and foreign-policy pragmatism wins out.
The government’s White Paper published in early February set out the UK government’s main negotiating points in the process of disengaging with the EU. In it, the government spelt out its ambitions to leave the single market and the customs union, seeking to replace them with a free trade agreements. Immigration from EU countries, the key referendum issue, will be controlled, with preference given to those who can fill gaps in the UK labour market. The rights of the 2.8m EU citizens living in the UK and the 1m UK citizens in the EU will be up for negotiation. Britain will leave the European Court of Justice and work out a new arrangement to settle disputes. And continuity – implementation of the above points will be phased in to avoid cliff-edge regulatory changes.
Focus on migration
Reports in the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph that the day Article 50 is triggered on or around 15 March would become the cut-off date for EU nationals living in the UK were quashed by Downing Street and Home Office sources. A date for EU nationals to register their right to live in Britain is now not expected to be set until after negotiations on reciprocal rights of Britons living in other EU countries have been concluded. Downing Street stressed that the cut-off date for EU nationals in Britain will be a key part of the negotiations over residency rights with the EU27.
With over 2.8 million EU nationals living in Britain, the Home Office will have to upgrade its residency application process. Some 200,000 residency applications were decided last year; the Home Office can expect applications to suddenly become an order of magnitude higher.
Speculation that Ms May wanted to announce the end of free movement for EU nationals who arrive in Britain after Article 50 is triggered next month, by imposing a new visa regime and restricting access to benefits, was also quashed by the Home Office.
Meanwhile, the number of Poles applying for National Insurance Numbers in the UK last year fell by 16% compared to 2015, from 112,000 to 93,000, suggesting that the UK is no longer seen as such an attractive destination for them.
TRADE AND MACROECONOMIC DATA
Value of UK-Polish trade in goods, Jan-Dec 2016; all currencies in billions
Although methodologies vary, the double-digit rise in bilateral trade when expressed in sterling is to a large degree the result of the pound’s drop in value against most currencies after the referendum. However, the UK’s Office of National Statistics shows the value UK exports to Poland growing faster than Polish exports to the UK, while the Polish statistical office GUS shows (in three different currencies) the value of Polish exports to the UK growing faster (or declining at a slower rate) than British exports to Poland. By the end of 2016, the UK ended up – as it was at the end of 2015 – Poland’s second-largest export market, overtaking Czechia once again.
One interesting fact extracted from GUS data is that Polish food exports (by value) as a percentage of total exports of Polish goods to the UK increased from 9.7% in 2004 to 17.7% in 2016. What will happen after Brexit, when around one-fifth of the Poles living in the UK are expected to return, we shall see – but if Polish food exporters want to maintain the tempo of growth, they will need to penetrate the non-Polish consumer market in the UK more thoroughly.
After an early-October low of 4.69 zł and an early-December rebound to 5.39 zł, sterling/złoty volatility has settled down and, at the time of writing, the pound is almost exactly where it was a month ago, namely just over the 5.00zł mark.
Against the dollar, the pound has shown less volatility since the markets digested the referendum result; over the past month, it has settled down within the $1.26-$1.22 band.
Pre-referendum fears about the economy going into recession in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote proved unfounded. But the UK is still in the EU, and the dangerous moment for the economy will be after the UK leaves the EU – especially should a comprehensive trade deal (which includes services) not be in place in time.
UK unemployment remains at 4.8% in the three months to December, the lowest rate for over 11 years. Retail sales increased by 1.5% in the year to January, reflecting a marked slow-down in the growth of consumption. Inflation continues to rise, as the post-referendum fall in the pound affects import prices, which are being passed onto consumers. CPI as a measure of inflation continues to grow, rising to 1.8% in the year to January (up from 1.6% in December, 1.2% in November and 0.9% in October). The Bank of England, having cut base rates to a historically low 0.25% to boost to economic demand, did not make the expected 15 basis-point cut to 0.1% in November. GDP growth for Q4 growth was adjusted upwards to 0.7% quarter-on-quarter, up from 0.6% in Q3.. The UK economy grew by 2.2% in the year to the end of Q4, and by 2.0% for the whole of 2016.
Full text of the White Paper here.