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Mon 6 July 2020
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Though it made much of controlling the borders, Mike Buckley reports how the Vote Leave Government is abandoning the principle at great cost to business and the NHS

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Well governed countries do not rip up trading relationships or fail to protect their own borders, yet that is exactly where our Government is heading. Michael Gove recently announced that the UK will not impose full border controls with the European Union (EU) on 1 January, deal or no deal. He tried to paint this as providing help to businesses as they adjust. In reality the move is an admission of Government failure. 

The Government have failed — and clearly expect to continue to fail — to conclude a viable deal with the EU. Just as bad, despite the fact that the end of the transition period has long been known, they have failed to prepare on the ground for the imposition of border controls. 

The lack of border controls on the UK border will be of minimal help to business. The EU will impose full controls. They have no intention of letting the UK become a back door for substandard goods entering the Single Market. In contrast, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Gove seemingly care little if the UK becomes a dumping ground for poor quality food or products. 

Gove’s move is no more than an acceptance of reality. There is no time to recruit, train and deploy customs staff. There is no time to build border infrastructure.

The Government have no answer to business’ legitimate desire to know what future trade requirements will be. The same is true for service companies wanting to continue to do business on the continent. In contrast the EU will be ready for 1 January and will implement checks to secure borders and protect citizens. For service companies, the legal system which governs cross border contracts will cease. 

Gove’s move is no more than an acceptance of reality. There is no time to recruit, train and deploy customs staff. There is no time to build border infrastructure. Given their refusal to extend the transition period the only option now is to admit defeat and become a global rarity — a rich, developed country without controls on its own borders. 

The Government want us to believe that this decision gives business certainty. It does nothing of the sort. The uncertainty businesses face will simply be extended it by a few months. Many will still need to complete customs forms for the first time. They still do not know what the future relationship will be. They still have no clue how to prepare.


Impact on Medical Imports

The importance of all this business cannot be overstated. While COVID-19 has been challenging it has not affected supply chains. Exporting and importing businesses have been able to trade as normal, benefiting them, consumers and the NHS, which is reliant on open borders for access to medicines and PPE. 

Access to medicines, in particular, could become an issue after 1 January. The NHS has used the medicine stockpiles it built for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic and an NHS waiting list of other complaints likely to hit 10 million this year they will have little chance to rebuild. 

The last thing the NHS will need in January will be disrupted supply chains when they could be dealing with a second COVID-19 wave and a winter ‘flu crisis. Gove failing to check items as they leave or arrive will do little to speed things up as full checks will remain on the EU side. The lack of process on this side of the border could even hamper EU checks; they will have no customs officers on this end to talk to. If incoming border checks truly are absent there is the nightmare scenario of medicines reaching the NHS that are out of date or falsely labelled. 

Business leaders are unimpressed with the Government’s change of plan. Anna Jerzewska, a trade consultant, said it remained unclear how companies would benefit from a light-touch border regime. “The procedure only delays the obligation to submit a full customs declaration,” she said. “It doesn’t remove it. The additional administrative and cost burden for the private sector doesn’t actually change.”

Business has long been wary of unequal treatment of imports and exports but that is exactly what the new regime means. National Pig Association advisor Ed Barker said the Government would need to decide between imposing low tariffs — causing huge damage to the domestic farming sector — or maintaining tariffs on EU imports and forcing prices rises for consumers.

There is then the question of timing. The EU will demand tariffs are paid immediately, the UK will allow a 6-month deferral, disadvantaging UK producers.


Negotiation Ploys

Business certainty will only come when a deal is agreed but the negotiations are stuck. Our Vote Leave Government wants continued Single Market access while we opt out of its rules, standards and legal system. Michel Barnier, negotiating on behalf of the EU27, is clear that this will never happen. ‘We cannot accept the UK’s attempts to cherry-pick parts of our Single Market benefits,’ he said on 10 June. 

The Conservatives have long stopped caring about business. They ditched business with Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech. Defining Brexit in the hardest possible terms — inevitably wounding business and the economy — was not forced on them by the Leave vote. It was a political choice made for reasons of internal party management and electoral calculation, not real-world benefit. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has calculated that the UK economy will be damaged more by COVID-19 than any other developed country. We will suffer a second blow in January because of Brexit. Even if we generously see Coronavirus impacts as a mix of fate and bad governance, Brexit is the Government’s responsibility alone. Hard Brexit is their choice, as is the end date of transition and stalemate in negotiations. 

Failing to prepare to control our borders displays Government impotence in the face of Brexit impacts, not strength. They have played the strongman for their vote base but the EU27 remain unmoved and will not imperil the EU project for the Conservatives’ benefit. 

It is not too late to turn aside. The Government even now could extend the transition or accept reality in the negotiations. As the Trade Justice Movement have shown the Brexit deal does not need to mark a race to the bottom. It could instead promote fairness and sustainability. Those of us who care about the state of our economy, all the more so in light of COVID-19, must do what we can to keep up the pressure and work for change. 


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