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Something odd is happening with Brexit. Since October 2017, the overwhelming majority of polls have had more people saying voting for Brexit was wrong than right, but not by much. Now there appears to be a shift. Why?
Walk into many supermarkets and shelves are often half empty. Greggs the popular low-cost sandwich chain, or major food providers like KFC and Nando have had to close branches as they cannot get deliveries. Now for the first time since Brexit major business leaders, especially those in the delivery and import-export sectors, are openly protesting.
The Financial Times report hotels cannot get clean linen for their beds due to Brexit staff shortages. But then Brexit always was a dirty business.
The latest figures on trade are dramatic:
- All food and drinks exports down to £9.2bn in first half of 2021, from £11.1bn in 2019
- Exports of beef and cheese to EU down 37% and 34%, respectively, on 2019
One in five small exporters have stopped selling into Europe as Brexit rules and regulations make it too difficult. A further 20% are thinking of pulling out of trading with Europe.
They were told that leaving Europe would initiate a flourishing new economic era but so far this has not happened. The exodus of hard-working Europeans who cooperated willingly with British employers, especially in driving trucks to and from the EU has hit hard. Britain has relied for centuries on labour from beyond its shores to do so called ‘unskilled’ work.
Conservative MPs and the pro-Brexit press try and present the shortage of essential workers as a pandemic related labour market problem. Brexit however has made this far worse. The UK has a rigid inflexible regime aimed at keeping EU citizens out of Britain. Employers who want to hire EU citizens as workers must pay them £25,600 (€2,500 a month) and negotiate with government bureaucrats to obtain permits.
Covid has hit all countries and all labour market sectors. But only in the UK is the evidence in front of people in terms of empty shelves. Napoleon called Britain a nation of shopkeepers. Brexit is making the business of running profitable shops far worse than anyone predicted during the years of anti-European campaigning.
Brexit is spinning hundreds of Gulliver strings that are irritating everyone from mothers who can’t get au pairs, to musicians who can’t perform at the network of summer music festivals on the continent. The UK government is insisting that European children should have full passport to visit England and in some cases a visa.
This hits the 750,000 German and French school students who come on education trips to Britain to improve their English. Often, they have only an ID card or enter on a collective identity document to keep down costs. Now they face paying €110 for a visa plus the cost of a national passport.
Mobile phone companies now say they will re-impose roaming charges on UK mobile phone user visiting the continent. The UK government is setting up its own kite-mark scheme to replace the EU’s obligatory CE mark showing a product meets safety and other standards. This is a pointless duplication, but as with the UK government’s insistence on having its own nationalist data protection system in place of the EU GDPR standards, Boris Johnson’s obsession with rejecting anything that is linked with Europe is worrying business.
The European Court of Justice has been very tough in upholding EU wide data protection regulation. If Britain fully opts out, firms will have to negotiate nation-by-nation deals to send data across borders hitting anything from E-commerce to HR details of employees that transnational firms keep and exchange.
Boris Johnson and UK ministers no longer appear on television or radio to defend Brexit. The champions of leaving Europe before 2016 in the media now write on other issues. There are no advantages from Brexit anyone can proclaim.
The idea of “Global Britain” which was promoted as a major benefit of Brexit disappeared in the disaster of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan. President Biden ignored with contempt Boris Johnson’s appeals for the US to stay longer in Afghanistan in order to help evacuate British nations or Afghanis who had collaborated with the British.
Even obdurate Tories are beginning to understand that placing Britain in a global Brexit isolation ward can only weaken the nation’s influence in world affairs.
Finally, this is working into politics. The latest poll published in September in The Times suggest support is ebbing. It found 39 per cent think the Brexit vote was right, 48 per cent think it was wrong and 13 percent don’t know.
If support for Brexit stays below 40% the Europe question in British politics will alter, as it will become very difficult if not impossible to argue that Brexit has benefitted Britain.
British voters like facts not political theory. The theory that the UK would benefit from leaving the EU is losing salience fast as the facts of Brexit prove the opposite.
How long before this works into political discourse remains to be seen. But it will happen.
By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)
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