Emerging divisions on trade after Brexit


Research by Sofia Vasilopoulou, Dan Keith and Liisa Talving in partnership with Demos.


Emerging divisions on trade after Brexit finds that Leavers are more likely to hold a favourable view of international trade (at 73 per cent favourable among Leavers, compared to 63 per cent for Remainers), despite being more negative about globalisation overall (32 per cent compared to 42 per cent).


The report finds that only 22 per cent of Labour supporters have a positive impression of new trade agreements after Brexit compared to 72 per cent of Conservative voters. And that 73 per cent of Leavers think new trade deals will be good for employment in the UK, while only 26 per cent of Remainers believe the same.


On average, Leavers think that in direct trade negotiations with Canada, Australia or India, the UK would have the stronger negotiating position. On average, the public believes the UK would have the strongest hand in negotiations with India. The UK, through its participation in the EU, has given supranational institutions the authority to negotiate and strike trade deals on its behalf. With Brexit, however, the UK leaves this delegated trade model. This would allow the country to independently negotiate and set up its own Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), but also exposes this policy to party politics, media scrutiny and public opinion.


These changes are likely to have a strong impact on the government’s ability to negotiate and sign trade deals and raise questions as to whether such policies are perceived to be democratically legitimate in the already polarised context of Brexit.


Commenting on the findings, study co-author Sofia Vasilopoulou said:

“Public opinion is likely to pose a constraint on any government’s attempt to strike new trade deals in the current context. If Brexit does not resolve deep problems in British society with regard to alienation, job insecurity and the disillusionment related to globalisation that was expressed against the EU during the referendum, it is likely to be directed against Westminster post-Brexit. FTAs are potentially key targets of this disillusionment as anti-globalisation feelings are likely to be channelled against FTAs.”


The findings also highlight the challenges facing political parties as they attempt to navigate post-Brexit divisions. A Conservative government might alienate ‘protectionist’ Leavers, a group that is currently small but might grow, especially as the debates over FTAs will expose the trade-offs.


The findings are based on a public opinion survey of 2,119 respondents conducted by YouGov on 29-30 July 2019. The survey is representative of the general UK population, aged 18+, in terms of age, gender, social grade, education, region, political attention, 2017 General Election and 2016 EU referendum vote.


Read the full report here. 


Sofia Vasilopoulou, University of York – [email protected]

Dan Keith, University of York – [email protected]

Liisa Talving, University of Tartu  – [email protected]