Opinion

No 10 is in denial about the cost of Brexit – and the Welsh Government about what they can do to fix it

25 Mar 2021 5 minutes Read
MV Stena Superfast X leaving Holyhead. Picture by Reading Tom (CC BY 2.0)

Tim Richards

Oscar Wilde once warned: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is a real tragedy!”

And now that Boris Johnson has gotten what he wanted on Brexit, England’s Tory Government is waking up to the consequences and it’s not a pretty sight.

With Covid-19 taking up the news headlines, the public desperate to hear about anything else but Brexit, and Labour not willing to touch a subject on which they were steamrolled at the last election, the UK Government have been able to exist in a state of denial.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we have seen a catastrophic slump, by 41%, of all our exports to the Continent.

Trade between Welsh ports and Ireland (which remains in the single market) has seen a decline of 50% in Holyhead, and 40% in Pembrokeshire.

This is because many lorries have decided to stop driving to Europe across the UK “land bridge” and are using ferries that cross the Irish Sea and the English Channel directly to Continental ports.

The Welsh government has today published a plan aimed at simplifying admin so that this Irish freight returns.

Unfortunately, our government is completely out of its depth when trying to deal with this problem.

It can’t help rebuild “confidence in the UK land-bridge” when it has no control over the customs barriers between England’s ports and the continent. It has limited control over one side of the ‘bridge’, and that’s all.

In simple terms when Mark Drakeford argues that UK must be radically redrawn to survive, he ignores the fact that when it comes to trade, Wales is part of the UK.

If Wales became an independent sovereign state then it could rejoin the Single European Market (without the need to rejoin the European Union).

But if the Labour party in Wales wants to stay in the United Kingdom it has no way at all of overcoming the poverty the UK Government’s decisions may impose on us.

False

If the Welsh Government is in denial about what it can do to mitigate the impact of Brexit, then the UK Government is in denial that there is a problem at all.

Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, faced with real statistics from the Road Haulage Association, whose survey showed that export volumes have dropped by 68% since Brexit, claimed that “inbound and outbound flows (across all UK ports) were close to normal” at “95% outbound and 96% inbound, in spite of the impact of Covid lockdowns on trade”.

This was blatantly false and roundly condemned as fiction. In fact, he was officially reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for using unpublished and unverifiable data and, in hindsight, it will become obvious that leaving the Single Market was the Tory Government’s most disastrous decision of all.

Meat is a good example of the pointless bureaucracy and red tape produced by this decision. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) revealed to the Guardian that sending a shipment of meat to the continent now results in a 26-stage process in order for meat to be exported from Great Britain to the EU.

Certifying officers need to check each consignment before departure and traders need to input details into at least five databases, while obtaining multiple certificates, reference numbers, documents and permits – all of which result in a mound of paperwork.

While the pandemic has managed to disguise the true extent of the drop in trade so far, the Food and Drink Federation’s survey of its members has reported that those who send goods to the EU showed that there has been a 45% drop in exports since 1 January.

Mess

The pandemic will not last forever and the UK Government will finally have to deal with the mess it has created.

In fact, there is some evidence already that the reality of building custom barriers has started to dawn on the Cabinet as they have belatedly realised that it will badly upset the supply of food from the continent, which is about a quarter of all the food we eat.

The problem lies with the ‘Just-in-time’ distribution of food which relies on supermarkets ordering stock into their stores on a daily basis, based on the level of demand in each individual store.

So, the answer is going to be ‘lighter touch’ controls on imports from 1 April than are currently planned, and scaling back plans for full customs checks, including physical inspections, which are due to begin on 1 July.

It is beginning to look as if imports will be allowed in even if clerical errors have been made by European companies, and, under pressure from business, that is going to become the norm – a sort of custom-lite – going through the motions, because the alternative is unworkable.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit could end up actually making trade with the European Union easier for them to import while having a catastrophic effect on our exports.

What a mess, and a pointless tragedy, just because Boris Johnson got what he wanted.

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