What can research tell us about Brexit?

At the end of October, Parliament welcomed 50 researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, and from all over the UK, to talk about Brexit.

These researchers are part-way through projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), through the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative. They came to the event in Westminster, cohosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and ESRC, to update Parliamentarians and staff on their ongoing research.

They spoke not only about how they are engaging with Brexit and all that it entails, but also about what they are discovering. So, firstly, how are academics exploring the UK’s withdrawal from the EU?

How are researchers engaging with Brexit?  

Many of the 25 research projects presented at the October event display some common approaches to engaging with the subject matter. Three we’ll explore here are:

Modelling alternative, post-Brexit futures

One of the ways academics are ‘imagining’ a post-EU future is by modelling various possible scenarios. For example, researchers considering potential immigration policy suggest that one option would be to close down immigration and rely on links with the USA, whilst another would be to focus on global connections. Another still would be to prioritise movement between the UK and the rest of Europe, since Europe remains the UK’s closest trading partner.

Trade agreements are another area where researchers are modelling potential futures. They are analysing the potential outcomes of: a comprehensive UK/EU Free Trade Agreement with UK-EU tariffs at zero; comprehensive trade agreements between the UK and the rest of the world, in addition to free trade with the EU; and trading on World Trade Organization rules.

Looking at other countries’ behaviours

Brexit is unprecedented, and will require the development of myriad new policies and laws. When considering the future of the UK, academics have been drawing insights from existing relationships and agreements between EU and non-EU members. For example, scholars who are questioning what our fisheries policies might look like are considering the agreements that Norway, Ireland, and the Faroe Islands have with the EU. As for trade policy, researchers have been looking to the relationships between China and the UK and also the UK and US when assessing potential future trade arrangements with the EU.

Listening to the public

Finally, many researchers are speaking to the public as part of their investigations into Brexit. One finding to emerge from this is that most voters, regardless of their choice in the referendum, desire high levels of free trade and some level of immigration control. However, only one in three think that both will be delivered.

Scholars have also been talking to British citizens living abroad, and have found that they are already feeling the impact of Brexit. People in dual nationality relationships have voiced concerns about their future, as have those being treated for chronic conditions by other health services. As a result, some are already applying for residency or dual nationality.

These are some of the common ways that researchers are engaging with Brexit, but what is their research telling us?

What is research telling us about Brexit?

Several themes emerge from the interim findings that researchers presented at the October event. Three that we’ll explore further here are:

Different regions will be distinctly affected by Brexit

One of the emergent patterns from ongoing research is that the effects of Brexit will be felt distinctly. For example, research suggests that there will be a marked regional disparity in the economic impacts of Brexit, with the Midlands and North of England at the highest risk of regional impact.

How to ensure the voices of the individual Devolved Nations are heard as negotiations take place is another issue the UK faces. For example, Scotland and Wales have adopted more ambitious environmental policies (set against EU benchmarks) than England, and concerns have been expressed in both countries that their interests will be under-represented in environmental negotiations, which are being led by the central Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Factors are interconnected

Many issues are highly intertwined. For example, Brexit will lead to the most significant changes in immigration policy since the UK started withdrawal from the Commonwealth free movement area in 1962, and these changes will affect both employment regulations and labour laws. Equally, fluctuations in import and export product pricing have the potential to impact jobs in the UK.

Citizens are not necessarily aware of certain important issues

Researchers have identified that the public is relatively uninformed about the impacts that Brexit may have on certain issues they deem to be important, such as the healthcare that they receive – both in the UK and abroad. What is more, the EU has been the driver for the development of health policy in a lot of areas, so researchers pose the questions of who or what will push future policy development, and in what way. Researchers argue that the public should be made more aware of these issues.

Elsewhere, academics understand that, with the exception of people living in Northern Ireland, generally citizens do not understand the Good Friday Agreement nor the ways in which Brexit may impact on – or even contravene – it. A greater understanding of the Agreement, and the relationships between Ireland and Northern Ireland, academics argue, is needed by all.

These are just some of the interim findings presented by academics from The UK in a Changing Europe in Parliament in October. More information on the 25 projects, their interim findings and timeframes for completion can be found in the report produced for the event.

Visit parliament.uk/Brexit to read research and analysis from Parliament’s libraries and committees on how Brexit will affect different policy areas in the UK.

This guest blog post was written by Sarah Foxen, social science advisor at POST.