By Mohamed Chebaro*
Whatever goes wrong in the UK, kindly blame the EU, but not Brexit.
Road, rail and ferry crossings to mainland Europe from the UK at this time of the year are busy, as is the case with transport hubs elsewhere in the world. Yet, for the British, the picture is more dramatic as the country adjusts to Brexit arrangements that are still in the making two years after the signing of the official exit treaty with Brussels.
Problems at the Dover ferry crossing and Folkestone Channel Tunnel last weekend were due to the slow processing on the French side of the border. Also, we are told, staff shortages among UK border and customs officials are to blame. The bottom line is that leaving the EU happened on paper, but the practical steps to reverse 40 years of free movement of people and goods will take longer to put in place without causing friction.
Other critical transport hubs in the UK have fared no better. Airport baggage handlers and ground staff shortages from check-in desk to security have been disrupting the travel experiences of thousands of holidaymakers before, during and after the peak summer travel periods.
Inevitably, a blame game has started between London and Paris over delays last weekend that left traveling families and truck drivers waiting for hours. Dover port authorities have blamed the French police at Calais for understaffing, while French authorities point to a lack of UK border staff on the French side of the border.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, a candidate to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, jumped into the fray, claiming that the delays were “appalling, unacceptable and entirely avoidable.” Many believe that her intervention is in keeping with the Johnson government’s inclination to place the blame on anyone but the UK in the post-Brexit era. Speaking tough is perhaps part of Truss’ campaign strategy to appeal to the Conservative Party grassroots ahead of the vote to decide the next Tory leader and prime minister when Johnson departs in September.
Regardless of which side to blame, Lucy Moreton, general secretary of the UK Immigration Services Union, said that disruption and lengthy queues were predictable after Brexit. She reminded everyone that the key reason for the EU’s existence is to make the movement of goods and people easier between member states. The UK has never been part of the Schengen border-free zone and retained its border checks. But leaving the EU has consequences, and this is one of them.
Border checks, as well as extra paperwork for freight and traffic, were reintroduced. Bottlenecks and lorry queues have been seen since then, but this summer is the first with unrestricted travel for the public since the lifting of pandemic restrictions.
Officials on both sides of the channel admit that more preparation should have taken place before Brexit.
Johnson made “taking back control” of UK borders a rallying call for his Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. However, since becoming prime minister, he has found that difficult to achieve.
The list of post-Brexit problems is getting longer by the day. Migrants in inflatable boats keep arriving on British shores, lorry drivers are in short supply, farm staples are left to rot in fields for lack of European seasonal pickers, and systems meltdowns at airports have been more frequent due to a lack of manpower after many EU citizens returned home during the pandemic and did not bother to fill visa and residency forms in order to work again in the UK.
Extra documents for export costs are almost bankrupting fishery companies. Inflation is likely to stay high for longer in the UK compared with other G7 countries. The rising cost of living is blamed by the government mainly on the Ukraine war, and an increase in oil and gas prices. But a recent report published by the London School of Economics found that new trade barriers after Brexit have driven up the cost of British food by 6 percent, an added factor in the UK’s surging inflation, now 9 percent and rising.
Britain’s exit from the Northern Ireland protocol is likely to make it a law-breaking country, too, in similar fashion to its law-breaking prime minister.
A serious accident, staff shortages and delays may have added to last weekend’s gridlock, but as the UK government has said, rigorous passport checks are likely to take more time, removing the all-but-seamless experience of pre-Brexit times.
Looking ahead, the EU is expected to update its entry system in 2023, with more red tape replacing the passport entry-and-exit stamp, along with obligatory fingerprinting and facial biometric photographing of travelers. The EU is due to introduce an “entry-exit system” that will record movement of visitors to the Schengen area based on a pre-travel registration network known as the European Travel Information and Authorization System, which will be compulsory for citizens of “third countries” such as the UK.
In short, Brexit polarized the UK during the referendum, but continues to divide the country even now. The government has clearly failed in its mission to provide economically viable alternatives in order to reduce the shock from the divorce arrangements and ensure a flexible business and employment market, which used to be the catalyst for the country’s economic strength.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.