White Flag Over Cliffs of Dover

The extraordinary announcement by Michael Gove that Johnson is reversing the line that "taking back control" from Europe meant much tighter border controls is not just a capitulation to EU demands, but is also a sign that the hard Brexit camp in government may not be as hard as previously thought.

The climb-down means that full proper customs checks will not take place on lorries entering the UK at Dover or coming off the Eurotunnel freight trains at Folkestone. Instead of a lorry by lorry check, the government says there will be a “light-touch” regime, probably not very different from what exists today.

The official briefing given to the Financial Times and its star Brexit reporter Peter Foster, who was poached from the Daily Telegraph, is that ministers do not want to make life more difficult for business struggling against the economic hit of the COVID crisis.

There have been endless calls since the health crisis shuttered the UK economy for Boris Johnson to extend the UK-EU talks into 2021, as there is no realistic chance of them being finished this year.

This is because the UK shows no signs of compromise and the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, has little leeway from the 27 governments he speaks for, as they cannot make major concessions to Brexit Britain due to internal politics.

Johnson will talk to 3 EU presidents – of the Commission, Council and Parliament – by Zoom call, but the fine-tuning of the most complex treaty negotiation in centuries cannot be done via computer screens.

So far, Johnson and ministers have been adamant in the Commons and on the BBC there is no question of softening the UK line. Now there is.

Britain will have a one-way open border but government has little choice. Eighty-five percent of all our fresh vegetables and fruit and two thirds of our bacon, bangers and ham arrive in 10,000 lorries each day. Lidl alone has 1,300 trucks bringing in daily the very cheap food we like to buy.

If each of those lorries was subject to the routine WTO type checks, which would be normal on goods and food being transported across borders which do not share common rules, as in the Single Market, then even a 5-minute inspection would produce queues going back to the Belgian border.

Having seen the panic buying stripping supermarket shelves in minutes at the start of the COVID crisis, not even Boris Johnson would want to risk massive food shortages, nor the possibility of rationing arising from a WTO or no-deal Brexit, disrupting food supplies into the UK from 1st January. 

Nevertheless, this is the first significant acknowledgement that the “oven-ready” deal promised by Johnson last autumn or the endless claims by Brexit ideologues from 2016 onwards that the government in the words of Michael Gove “hold all the cards and we can chose the path we want” were always hyperbole.

Now reality breaks in. The U-Turn on Dover may allow lorries to arrive in Britain with all sorts of goods, food or even smuggled immigrants, without effective checks, but it does not work in the other direction.

As Jürgen Maier - until recently the head of manufacturing supergiant Siemens in the UK - points out, the lorries going into Europe will still face checks. This is because once they arrive on the continent, where the French and other coastal nations which receive imports from Britain have invested – unlike Britain – in building major new lorry parks and customs checks lanes, vehicles will wait in queues for hours, if not days.

London’s boast of a potential trade deal with America, which is unlikely to happen easily if Trump is defeated, is seen by Europe’s powerful agro-food lobbies as a danger - the fear being some of this product is re-exported to the continent.

So the instruction from 27 sovereign European parliaments and governments to Barnier is to take no risk with Britain becoming the gateway for US low-quality food. As a side note, the US Centre for Disease Control estimates this food leads to 6-8 million food poisoning cases in America every year and 6,000 deaths.

Negotiations have to end in October to allow 27 governments to ratify any deal as well as put it through all its stages in the Commons. The U-turn on Dover customs checks shows just how worried ministers are that Brexit is not turning out as figures like Nigel Farage, newly dismissed by LBC as one of its star guest presenters, promised us.

Johnson over the years has never been afraid of changing his position. Hauling up the white flag to Europe over the white cliff of Dover will just be the first of more adjustments to reality.

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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