There is a well-known phenomenon in politics called “the law of unintended consequences.” It means simply that whenever laws are passed or regulations imposed to accomplish one objective, other results end up being counterproductive for the very factions that supported the original initiative.

Brexit is a classic example of such a phenomenon at work.

The vote by citizens of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to leave the European Union was, by all accounts, strongly fueled by popular reaction against the levels of immigration “imposed” by the EU. Many of the “Leave” campaigns locally across the UK stated that departing the EU would allow Great Britain to close its borders.

The London-based The Telegraph newspaper reported that Boris Johnson, a prominent Leave campaigner and a frontrunner to be the country’s next prime minister, claimed that British citizens will still have access to the EU single market. “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes; and to settle down,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed.

But as a CNN analysis noted, the UK may have to keep its borders open to EU workers if the nation wants to trade freely with the rest of Europe. Although negotiations over the terms of the UK’s departure haven’t even begun, it’s likely that the Brexit supporters may find that their hoped-for restrictions on immigration may not come to pass.

That’s just one consequence.

The Leave campaign hinged on claims that the UK sends “£350 million pounds a week to the EU,” a slogan that was painted on the sides of buses campaigning in favor of Brexit. But as CNN noted, “About half of the money the UK hands over to the EU is returned to the country via subsidies for farmers, grants for research and funding for infrastructure. And that money is already committed.”

And there’s no guarantee for the small farmers and business interests who supported Brexit that those subsidies and payments will continue.

Perhaps even worse, the citizens of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, prompting calls for another referendum on independence from the UK. Not only could Brexit mean the end of membership in the European Union, it could mean the end of the United Kingdom altogether.

How the meat industry’s impacted

Here are just a few of the other unintended consequences Britons face after their historic vote to depart the EU.

  • Analysts expect the cost of imported meat, such as bacon, to rise after the British pound plummeted in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU. The weakening of the pound means that UK consumers would end up paying more for imported meats, especially bacon. About two million metric tons are imported each year, most of it from EU member countries Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands. In fact, according to the International Meat Trade Association, almost half of all meat products consumed in the UK are imported. Assuredly, hardly anyone weighing in on Brexit thought about the cost of a staple food items as they voted to depart the EU.
  • Brexit may pose a significant threat to other countries’ meat industries. For example, the Irish meat industry is heavily dependent on exports. According to the Irish Food Board, about 40% of Ireland’s ag exports go to the UK, much of it across the border with Northern Ireland, including more than half of Ireland’s total beef exports and some 60% of its pork exports. Thanks to Brexit, Ireland would now be treated as a foreign country, and tariffs, regulatory barriers or other restrictions that might be imposed could reduce trade by as much a billion euros annually. And guess who ends up paying that price?
  • With per-capita meat consumption declining across the UK — as it is in many developed countries — the long-term viability of the country’s meat industry depends on maintaining robust export sales. Yet in exiting the EU, the UK would have to independently negotiate a slew of EU-approved trade agreements, including the WTO’s Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. And if the EU proceeds with a free-trade agreement with South America, tariff-free quotas for beef from Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina could potentially damage the UK’s beef industry big time.

How many angry Britons considered any of that as they pulled the lever in support of Brexit?

I’d argue that the number was far less than the total of the UK citizenry who are going to be even angrier when food prices become volatile, jobs disappear and rural economies take a hit — all because nobody considered the unintended consequences of their decision. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.