THERE have been so many incredible aspects to the Boris Johnson administration’s utterly ill-judged hard Brexit – none of them good. And the grim ideological tub-thumping by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on this front has been as predictable as it has been ubiquitous.
So you would think Mr Johnson and his Cabinet ministers would have more or less lost the capacity to surprise by now on Brexit. Sometimes, however, their pronouncements do still prompt a double-take because they are just so ridiculous.
And so it was this week when the Prime Minister, facing a barrage of criticism over a party in the garden of 10 Downing Street in May 2020 during the first lockdown, retweeted a BBC news story about Virgin and O2 mobile phone users in the UK not having to face roaming charges in the European Union. These networks are both part of the same group, Virgin Media O2.
Mr Johnson did so with the pronouncement: “I welcome the decision by @VirginMedia and @O2 to keep roaming free, meaning UK citizens can still use their mobile data, calls and texts across Europe with no extra charges.”
It is obviously a good thing for UK citizens to be able to use their mobile phone contract allowances across Europe at no additional cost.
However, as Mr Johnson will presumably know fine well, people with UK mobile phone contracts had a right to use their mobile data, call and text allowances across the EU with no extra charges until the country left the European single market. They had this valuable right and protection as a result of some very welcome regulation by the EU. Crucially, it was not something at the discretion of the mobile phone companies. And it made life so much easier for UK consumers, who were able to use their allowances as if they were in their home country with no worries.
Other major mobile phone providers in the UK have been relatively swift to move to bring back roaming charges for customers visiting EU countries in the wake of the departure from the single market delivered by Johnson and co at the end of 2020.
Vodafone, EE and Three have all announced plans for the reintroduction of charges for UK customers roaming in the EU. This has been a disappointment, but it is hardly a surprise, given the Johnson administration delivered a hard Brexit which enabled them to do so. And their customers will hopefully realise who enabled the roaming charges to be brought in.
It will be interesting to see how this situation evolves over coming months and years. You wouldn’t imagine the roaming charges announced would be reduced over time. And, in any case, what is for sure is that things will be more expensive and complex for huge numbers of UK citizens travelling in Europe and looking to stay connected. In a world in which such communication is increasingly crucial to people’s everyday lives, it is a sorry step backwards. But such dismal steps backwards seem to be a speciality of this UK Government and the Brexiters who put it in power, as some Tories and other Leavers appear to hanker after days of Empire that are gone forever.
The demoralising reality of the backward step on mobile phone roaming is spelled out by UK telecoms regulator Ofcom on its website. It says: “Since 31 December 2020, the EU rules on roaming charges no longer apply in the UK. This means that, like other destinations, the amount your mobile provider can charge you for using your mobile phone in EU countries, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein is no longer capped.”
Of course, overseas travel for many people in the UK and in other countries around the globe has been put on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic. So the announcements by Vodafone, the BT-owned EE, and CK Hutchison Holdings’ Three network of the reintroduction of charges for UK mobile phone customers roaming in the EU will likely for many have slipped below the radar.
However, as overseas travel resumes, UK citizens will become increasingly aware of the fact that the previous roaming rights and protections in Europe have been destroyed by Mr Johnson’s Brexit.
Of course, this is only one of so, so many woes and ills visited upon the UK’s households, companies, economy and society by the foolish departure from the EU and from the single market and customs union.
However, it is a very significant thing, affecting large numbers of people.
Mr Johnson, with his bizarrely upbeat tweet on the Virgin Media and O2 decision, seemed to be hailing as some kind of victory the fact that one major mobile phone player has decided to keep things as they were before Brexit. Given the reintroduction of roaming charges by EE, Vodafone and Three, it is important that people realise that the reality of what Mr Johnson is trumpeting is that one group has taken a decision which does not exacerbate the damage created by his hard Brexit.
James O’Brien, author of How Not To Be Wrong: The Art Of Changing Your Mind and presenter on radio station LBC, summed things up well. He tweeted: “Massive win! Some networks are staying the same as they were before Brexit. Let joy be unconfined.”
It does seem like a truly remarkable thing for Mr Johnson to crow about. Then again, the supposed benefits promised by the Brexiters, which always looked entirely unbelievable, have failed spectacularly to materialise. So maybe clutching at straws becomes the only viable option for the Brexiters. Certainly this has seemed to be the case with wild enthusiasm about trade deals with Australia and New Zealand offering, based on the UK Government’s own projections, respective boosts to UK gross domestic product over the long term of 0.01% to 0.02%, and 0.00%.
As with so many other pronouncements from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, Mr Johnson’s tweet about roaming charges just highlights the fact once again that so many things were so much better and easier before the UK exited the single market.