It was the big Brexit lie. No, not the £ 350 million a week that were supposed to go to the British National Health Service (NHS) or the “bonfire” of paperwork and bureaucracy. The lie was that the ruins that today envelop UK-EU trade were an inevitable price worth paying to leave the EU. That was bullshit.
Seeking to increase his chances of becoming the leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson committed to two things. One was to resign from the European Union; the other, to abandon the customs union and the European common market, which are accepted by other states outside the EU, such as Norway. The second decision was almost a fortuitous gesture to look macho at the Brexit party. It was not put through a referendum and it was stupid.
Today no news is free of consequences. At the beginning of this year, the effects of leaving the common market could be seen in the trade drop with the continent, even taking into account the pandemic. The additional paperwork is staggering. The UK customs department estimates that traders will have to take over of 215,000 more import and export documents per year, with an estimated annual bureaucratic cost of 7.5 million pounds sterling (8.7 million euros). Tariffs may not apply, but rules of origin and sanitary standards do. Every truck and every shipment require inspection.
Regarding immigration, the total seasonal agricultural labor shortage is 20%, often higher, according to the radio show Farming Today from BBC 4. Fruit will rot in the fields, the pigs will not make it to the slaughterhouses and the Christmas turkeys will be a “nightmare”. In the meantime, missing 170,000 workers in English nursing homes and 100,000 drivers in delivery companies. In hotels there are abandoned rooms and restaurant tables. The creative industries – which account for £ 100bn (€ 116bn) of the UK economy – were neglected by Brexit negotiators and are now virtually isolated from Europe.
This is not Brexit. Britain could have abandoned Brussels and rid itself of loads of rules and regulations. This is the result of abandoning the home market and Johnson’s xenophobic belief that European trade standards were somehow “un-British”. Johnson was extremely pro-EU workers when he was mayor of London, but not during his tenure as prime minister.
The importance of the common market
I am sure that some of the current problems will be fixed, but the idea that trade with the UK’s main partner, the European Union, will recover at some point outside of some kind of economic union is absurd. So is the theory that the losses caused by the current chaos will be offset by gains elsewhere. It is strange to have to explain to a conservative that prosperity lies in open markets and not closed ones.
Significantly, Johnson has not established a permanent trade and agriculture commission to protect UK interests in the new deals. He’s clearly desperate for new deals, no matter how bad they are. In addition, the National Audit Office has yet to conduct its regular assessment of David Frost’s deal with the European Union after Brexit. He hasn’t bothered to do it. I imagine the evaluation will be tremendous.
Brexit need not have destroyed the British economy like this. The damage has come from a single decision: to abandon the common market. The sensible thing to do would be for Johnson to be humble and seek, as much and as quickly as possible, reinstatement to that market. The UK could emulate the protocol it has agreed to for Northern Ireland. This would not imply rejoining the EU, but rejoining Ireland, which would be the most delightful historical irony.
Negotiating the common market in 1987 was a free trade achievement that made Margaret Thatcher proud. The deal responded to the interests of the UK and Europe and turned out to be a success. Boris Johnson has erased that achievement in an act of unscrupulous political ambition. He pretended it was necessary for Brexit. That was his biggest lie.
Translation by Julián Cnochaert.