By Ranvir S. Nayar*
Those watching British news in recent weeks could not have failed to notice that the normally boring UK retail sector was vying for the top slot alongside dramatic images of the collapse of the Afghan government in the face of a Taliban onslaught.
While reports on Afghanistan highlighted the hectic pace of events as Kabul fell to the militants, those from UK shops and supermarkets focused more on the fact that nothing was happening as stocks ran low and shelves stayed empty for days on end.
Major retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s were unable to restock their stores due to a sharp drop in deliveries from suppliers.
Some experts were quick to remark that during the heated debate leading up to Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the British had been warned of supply disruptions, empty shop shelves and shortages of household essentials, including food.
While some of the disruption can be blamed on restrictions associated with the pandemic, most is the result of Brexit, which complicated not only trade but also the movement of workers between the UK and the continent.
Retailers blame their empty shelves on a shortage of lorry drivers, many of whom hail from central and eastern European countries. According to some estimates, there is a shortage of about 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK, and supply problems could continue for months unless the government makes it easier for foreign workers to make up the shortfall or extends driving hours for existing drivers — a move that that is likely to lead to a rise in accidents.
Certainly, the pandemic has made the situation worse as many lorry drivers, as well as other workers, left the UK to go back to their countries amid the extended lockdowns. Few now are willing or able to return to work in the UK, even if they hold a visa, due to the complex travel rules and uncertainty over the short-term future.
Unfortunately, it is not just the lorry companies that are facing a shortage of qualified workers. As the economic revival kicks in across all key sectors, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been getting an earful from businesses leaders in hospitality, tourism and manufacturing over the labor shortage.
Economists estimate that there were over 5 million European workers in the UK before Brexit and that a significant number have returned home in the past 18 months. Getting well-qualified replacements for so many workers will be a long haul, even if Johnson can ease the migration and work permit rules that, ironically, were at the heart of demands for Brexit.
But it is not just Brexiteers and the UK paying a heavy price for Brexit. The exit has cost the EU as well, affecting the strategic and diplomatic heft that the EU had, with two of five permanent members of the UN Security Council — UK and France — as members. The Europeans will also miss the military might of the UK, especially in third-country operations or in the face-off against Russia.
Some of these handicaps can be overcome in the medium term by the EU, but in one segment — European students studying in British universities — the Brexit damage is likely to be far more long lasting and widespread. For decades, aided by the generous Erasmus program, hundreds of thousands of EU students opted to study in the UK, attracted by the good standing of British universities, with many also staying on and working in the country after their education was complete.
But with the UK now out of Erasmus, EU students opting for British universities will have to pay stiff fees like any other foreign national, almost four times what British students pay, taking the luxury of a British education away from most.
The first signs of this are already visible as UK undergraduate schools report a 40 percent drop in the number of EU students opting to study in Britain. The data will be clearer later in the year, or perhaps even next year, since this year’s overseas admissions may have been marred by pandemic uncertainty.
If the trend holds true, however, it will be a severe loss for the EU as it moves toward becoming an overwhelmingly knowledge-based economy, with access to the top-notch universities and education that Britain offers a major part of the transition. Certainly, there are excellent universities in Germany and some other parts of the EU, but depriving EU students of the experience of a British education will have a long-lasting impact on the EU and its workforce.
UK students will also end up losing as the ease of movement between British and EU universities disappears, taking away with it the advantages of cross-cultural study and work experience offered by Erasmus.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.