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25 Jan 2024

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UK-EU Relations

Joël Reland argues that the government is reforming several totemic pieces of EU-derived law but that these changes are symbolic rather than substantive – intended to give Sunak some Brexit ‘wins’ he can point to ahead of a UK general election.

Find out more in the latest edition of the UK-EU Divergence Tracker.

Brexit, it’s fair to say, will not dominate this year’s general election, but it could still be an important issue at the margins. It is not hard to imagine the Conservatives, for example, trying to appeal to Leave supporters by accusing Labour of wanting to rejoin the EU by the back door.

A rehearsal of that argument can be found in Rishi Sunak’s 2023 party conference speech, where he accused Keir Starmer of trying to ‘align us with the European Union so that we never seize the full opportunities of Brexit’.

The problem for Sunak is that most Leave voters think his party has failed to deliver these opportunities too, and those who viscerally fear ‘Starmergeddon’ may instead plump for the Faragist stylings of Reform UK.

But there are signs that Sunak is beginning to bolster his Brexit arsenal. Our latest divergence tracker shows an uptick in legislative activity, as government rushes to pass measures before the next election, including a number of changes which could be chalked up as symbolic Brexit ‘wins’.

The export of live animals for fattening and slaughter is set to be banned under the Animal Welfare (Live Exports) Bill. This has long been pushed for by animal rights groups and prominent Brexiters, but was not possible under EU rules.

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill proposes changes to UK data protection rules – deviating from the EU’s ‘GDPR’ – including a planned reduction in the presence of cookies banners on websites.

UK Working Time Regulations – which originate in EU law – have been revised via secondary legislation to allow workers on irregular hours to ‘roll up’ their holiday pay into their general pay.

And, of course, the cap on bankers’ bonuses, introduced by the EU following the 2008 financial crisis, was revoked late last year. City workers will soon be able to toast this with a pint of wine – following changes to UK regulation on bottle sizes.

These all represent reforms to totemic pieces of EU law, which might appeal strongly to some Leave voters. The sudden wave of measures also appears to contradict our previous finding that the pace of divergence from EU law has slowed to a dribble.

Yet, digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that there is very little meaningful divergence taking place. These are heavily watered-down versions of more ambitious proposals, lacking in much substance but simpler to complete pre-election.

Trade experts believe that the impact of the live animal export ban will be minimal, as there is already an industry preference for slaughtering animals domestically prior to export. The ban was previously part of a much wider-reaching animal welfare bill, but this was scrapped in favour of a single-issue approach.

Similarly, lawyers note that many employers already have a ‘long-standing practice’ of allowing workers to roll up their holiday pay, despite it being unlawful in the EU, so the law will largely be updated to reflect existing practices. More radical reforms of working time rules have, for now, not materialised.

Government argues that removal of the bankers’ bonus cap will reduce fixed costs for financial services – allowing a greater proportion of pay to be linked to performance-related bonuses. Yet the viability of this change is highly contested, as bankers are not obliged to – and very unlikely to accept – deflated salaries in exchange for higher bonuses.

And on GDPR, the government previously promised a dramatic simplification of the rulebook, yet the latest reforms are highly technical and modest in ambition. This reflects the fact that any major divergence would lead to the EU removing its data adequacy decision for the UK – at significant cost to the UK services sector. Even the limited divergence in the current bill – which does meaningfully reduce some personal data protections – could give the EU grounds to revoke the decision.

Ultimately, then, this is the politics of style over substance; a package of reforms which gives the impression of significant departure from the EU, while causing minimal disruption.

Yet this is an apt reflection of the space that Brexit now occupies in the British political landscape. Voter concern about the EU is at its lowest level in eight years, and government would rather not risk the economic disruption entailed by major divergence. But, simultaneously, as Professors Sarah Hobolt and James Tilley argue, voters still have strong underlying Brexit ‘identities’, which remain exploitable in the right conditions.

In short, individual Brexit policies can still resonate strongly with voters, but few pay attention to the finer details.

Rishi Sunak will be keen for some flagship Brexit ‘wins’ he can paste straight into his manifesto and show to Leave voters. Whether they change much in reality is of little concern.

By  Joël Reland, Research Associate, UK in a Changing Europe.

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