Monday 20 February 2017

Brexit: drifting toward failure

There comes a point where stupidity crosses the line into wickedness. The steadfast refusal on the Tory right to confront the realities of Brexit is one of the most astonishingly dishonest deeds I have seen in my lifetime. Through their respective propaganda vessels they have sought to promote the idea that Brexit can be quick and simple with no ramifications for trade and wider concerns. This is when it becomes pure malice.

The Guardian reports today that "The introduction of customs checks at Dover after Britain leaves the EU could bring gridlock to the south-east of England, with lorries queueing for up to 30 miles in Kent to get across the channel, senior figures in the transport industry have warned".

This has been an ongoing theme in the pioneering research of - and those who follow the Brexit debate in any depth know full well where this information comes from. This is a reality the Tory right have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide from and deny outright. Such is their hubris and obstinacy.

There are those who have sought to engage however it would appear that understanding is still thin on the ground. Charlie Elphicke, the Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, believes the solution is electronic checks. He said he was consulting with local businesses and experts such as the former head of Border Force and consultants at Accenture to come up with a proposal in the spring.

What Elphicke and others are failing to see is that there are two sides to the Channel - the British side and the French side. You can clear customs of the UK side, but that only gets you out of the country. THEN, you have to go through French (EU) customs.

Clearance through the British side is usually a formality. There is only a very limited number of things that require export clearance (weapons, nuclear material, etc). For the most part clearance is a formality, required primarily so that traders can reclaim VAT and, for third countries, for statistical purposes.

This can be done electronically. It's not much of a problem for outgoing goods. The problem starts at two levels. First, when the goods are presented on the other side of the Channel. There has to be a declaration and then checks and well as veterinary checks.

The next hurdle is when goods come into the UK. There, they are coming from an external customs territory, because we're no longer in the Single Market/EU. The Declaration has to be checked, and we then have to decide what inspection levels.

Electronic clearance can only be achieved on the UK side. The French may (and probably will) require physical documents - and then there are physical load checks and then goods inspections. These are what are going to take the time. The Guardian article talks about space restriction at Dover but there are huge restrictions at Calais. The port is groaning at the seams and is undergoing upgrades. That project is not going to be complete until 2021. It's been years in the planning, and will need as much again.

The problem here is that we're dealing with the typical "little England" parochialism of the British press. They've focused only on the British systems and Dover. They haven't given a single thought to how the French customs system is going to cope (or not).

The problem will be that the trucks will be able to clear UK customs but, as the Calais system gets overloaded, the ferries and trains won't be able to unload, they'll start to back up, so the trucks in Dover and the Channel Tunnel won't be able to load up, and will start backing up, and then the queues start.

Seamless customs are a benefit of regulatory cooperation and is a consequence of having harmonised systems. It is the more visible aspect of a much larger single market system encompassing dozens of distinct agencies and volumes of EU and UK law. This is what Mrs May has chosen to disengage from.

Any proposal which does not acknowledge this reality is not worth the paper on which it is written. Given the lacklustre input of experts thus far, and the media trailing months behind on reporting these such issues there is only a slender chance that Accenture will produce anything of value.

Anything less than a comprehensive proposal taking into account the EU's approach to customs will more than likely be dead-batted as entirely unworkable by the EU. Not unfairly either. A system cannot be tacked on to single market law exclusively for the benefit of the UK without considerable compliance and participation in EU agencies.

By now it has become clear to all but the most brain-dead of Brexiteers that any future relationship with the EU will necessarily be comprehensive and restrictive. If not down to the nature of the EU then by way of legacy issues arising from having been a member of the EU. If the aim is to have seamless customs then Mrs May will need to reconsider her stance on being "half in, half out". We cannot expect special treatment.

It is astonishing that the media is not shouting from the rooftops that this government is singularly ill-advised in their conviction that their woefully simplistic model of Brexit can be delivered in just two years.

On present form we are running out of ways to say, and to demonstrate, just how far out of her depth Mrs May and her government is. They are setting the country up for a massive humiliation while putting the livelihoods of millions at risk. Unless the opposition gets its act together we will pay a far higher price for Brexit than we ever needed to. We are sleepwalking toward the greatest political failure of the last fifty years and all we hear is incomprehension and silence.

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