It has become politically incorrect to hark back to the actions of the leaders of the Brexit campaign in 2016. However, it now seems fair to question whether the Government is delivering on the promises that its leaders had made to its supporters almost five years ago.
The underlying message of the ‘leave’ campaign was summed up by Boris Johnson when he memorably assured us that a post-Brexit Britain could ‘have its cake and eat it’. On 16 April 2016, Michael Gove echoed this when he told voters that the UK would be able to trade freely within Europe even if it left the EU. We would have access to the Single Market but be free from European regulation.
This vision of a Britain ‘taking back control’ from the EU but continuing to enjoy what Johnson liked to describe as ‘frictionless’ trade with its members must have swayed many people to vote for ‘leave’. These people now have a right to blame the present government for failing to deliver on their expectations by negotiating a trade deal that deliberately created serious obstacles to the free movement of goods between the UK and EU countries.
Even on 24 December 2020, when Johnson hailed the ‘successful’ conclusion of a deal in a press conference and prepared to rush it through parliament without due scrutiny and debate, he sought to perpetuate the myth that it was an agreement to trade ‘without tariffs, without quotas’. Presumably, the Labour party leadership took this assurance seriously when it called on its MPs to support the agreement.
As soon as UK exporters and importers tried to restart trading with the EU in January this year, they found themselves overwhelmed by having to fill in complicated forms, expose their consignments to lengthy inspections and delays, and face a range of new customs-imposed charges, some of which had to be paid by unsuspecting recipients. ‘Number 10’ claimed that these were ‘teething problems’.
Three months later, the problems are still there. Many small and medium-scale businesses have had to suspend trading with Europe and some have gone bust. The overall impact on business earnings and employment on both sides of the Channel must be vast. There are no winners.
I am a British citizen resident in Italy and, in the last month, have twice been directly affected by the new trading arrangements. In one instance, we sent 12 bottles of local wine to our elder son in England as a birthday present. The courier’s charge had risen by about 30% since Brexit to cover their extra administrative costs and risks of delays and the shipper warned me that Harry would have to pay £28 customs duty on the wine on its arrival. He ended up paying £55.61, consisting of Customs Duty (£0.90), Advance Payments (£11.00), Excise Duty (£26.78) and Value Added Tax (£16.93). The combined effect was to increase the aggregate cost of the delivered wine by over 50% above the pre-Brexit cost for the same transaction!
The second case related a birthday present sent to my wife by her brother in Scotland. It was a hold-all, valued at £50, that weighed less than 1kg, posted via Royal Mail on 12 March at a cost of £13.80. There was no indication to the sender that there would be any other charges. It took four weeks to arrive here and I was required by the Italian postal service to pay €12.65 for VAT and a further €7.50 for their retrieving the parcel from Customs.
These minor brushes with reality have been irritating, but they made me think of the huge scale of the problem. The experience has convinced me that the time has come for the European Movement – and the opposition parties – to vehemently expose the deep flaws in the Trade Agreement and especially the government’s betrayal of its promises that brought so many ‘leave’ supporters on board. We must now also stop letting them continue to use the woes caused by COVID 19 as a cover for the massive economic and political damage being caused by their botched Brexit trade deal.
The first signals of public unwillingness to swallow Johnson’s lies on Brexit customs arrangements are coming out of Belfast. While all political parties in Northern Ireland are condemning the rioters for the violence, they must look themselves in the mirror and accept that their willingness to go along with an unworkable Brexit deal is provoking the unrest. Rather than seek to marginalise, disown and suppress the rioters, perhaps they should listen to their grievances and explore how to respond to them in an honest and transparent manner.
It looks as though the only practical solution to the Irish problem is for the UK government and the EU to agree immediately to turn the clock back to the temporary trading conditions that prevailed in the transition period (up to 31 December 2020), while jointly declaring their intent to embark on negotiating a truly ‘frictionless’ deal that would ensure genuinely free and prosperous trade across Europe. This drastic move would also forestall the real prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom in the wake of the upcoming elections in Scotland.
Sorry, Boris, it’s high time for yet another U-turn.