FURTHER long delays by the UK Government in new border controls for fresh food imported from the European Union – announced by arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg last week – are surely an embarrassment for the Johnson administration.
However, while the repeated delays still look in large part to have been down to a lack of preparedness, the continuing failure of the UK Government to implement import checks as it had previously planned in the context of its hard Brexit deal is a huge relief. After all, we already have a supply-chain shambles in the UK arising from Brexit and global factors.
Repeatedly delaying these proposed new import checks might well be the only thing the UK Government has got right on the Brexit front. It may well have got this right for the wrong reasons – and the extraordinary mess of everything Brexit would suggest this is likely. However, many will not care why these elements of major bureaucracy stemming from the Leave odyssey have been put back to another day, with the new checks and controls on food imports from the EU having now been delayed four times. People will just be utterly relieved that they have been postponed again.
The Cabinet Office announced on Thursday: “The remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced this year. Instead, traders will continue to move their goods from the European Union to Great Britain as they do now.
“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the recent rise in global energy costs, have had a significant effect on supply chains that are still recovering from the pandemic.”
It added: “The Government has therefore concluded that it would be wrong to impose new administrative requirements on businesses who may pass on the associated costs to consumers already facing pressures on their finances.”
Surely the frictionless trading arrangements with the EU which the UK had when it was part of the world’s largest free trade bloc were best for consumers, businesses and the economy alike.
For its part, business was, understandably, relieved about the latest delay.
William Bain, head of trade policy at British Chambers of Commerce, said of what he described as the “further delay of over 12 months on checks of EU food imports”: “Given current economic circumstances it’s sensible to postpone the implementation of import food checks, due to be introduced in July, September and November, for over 12 months.
“Our research has painted a clear picture that customs checks on goods and increased paperwork have damaged our exports to the EU, particularly from smaller businesses.”
He added: “With food prices rising, the extra costs from new checks on meat, fish, dairy and other products would fuel inflation – hitting the pockets of both business and the British public.”
While the Government was announcing the latest postponement decision, it seemed also to shine the spotlight on the major costs and bureaucracy that have arisen because of Brexit. These are plain to see, but the Johnson administration has seemed to prefer not to acknowledge their existence.
The Cabinet Office also proclaimed on Thursday, as it delayed the fresh food import checks and controls further, that its “change in approach” was “expected to save British importers at least £1 billion in annual costs”.
The best way, of course, for UK importers and exporters to benefit most financially and avoid onerous bureaucracy would have been for the country to have remained part of the European single market.
Such a course of action would also clearly have avoided massive, unnecessary damage to the UK economy over the short, medium and long term.
The Theresa May government’s forecasts, published in November 2018, showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK gross domestic product in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries. The UK Government has clamped down dramatically on immigration from the EEA. And it remains difficult to escape the notion that a clampdown on immigration has been the key part of Brexit for significant numbers of people in the UK, amid all the “take back control” mantra from the Leavers.
The UK Government certainly does not appear in a rush for “control” when it comes to the food import checks.
The latest delay to these import checks is a long one. And the UK Government is still giving the impression of being rather clueless about how it intends to deliver this aspect of its Brexit.
The Cabinet Office said last Thursday: “The Government will now review how to implement these remaining controls in an improved way. The new target operating model will be based on a better assessment of risk and will harness the power of data and technology. It will be published in the autumn and the new controls regime will come into force at the end of 2023.”
Day by day, the veneer put on Brexit peels away a bit more. And more and more of the electorate can see the folly for what it is.
Minister for Brexit Opportunities Jacob Rees-Mogg said last Thursday: “Today’s decision will allow British businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic, navigate global supply chain issues and ensure that new costs are not passed on to consumers.
“It’s vital that we have the right import controls regime in place, so we’ll now be working with industry to review these remaining controls so that they best suit the UK’s own interests. We want the process for importing goods from the EU to be safe, secure and efficient and we want to harness innovative new technologies to streamline processes and reduce frictions. It’s precisely because of Brexit that we’re able to build this UK-focused system.”
How about just totally frictionless trade with the world’s largest free trade bloc rather than hand-wringing over a new system (the details of which seem far from finalised)?
Sometimes, when observing the UK Government’s own presentation of the impacts of its Brexit, you almost have to pinch yourself to check you are not dreaming.
Mr Rees-Mogg said it would have been “an act of self-harm” if the import controls had been introduced. This looks to be true.
However, were the situation not so utterly serious, his comment would have been almost comical. After all, what is Brexit in its entirety if it is not self-harm?