Brexit shock washes up on Britain’s shores9 min read . Updated: 13 Jan 2021, 06:26 AM IST
- New tariffs, bureaucracy and quotas are disrupting life in the UK. The pain has only just begun.
- The shrinking of Britain may even become physical and political. A Scottish referendum is now increasingly likely. There is a sense of exhaustion and fatigue among Britons.
NEW YORK : Routes to France closed. Stay home." So said the large sign in Kent in late-December, warning trucks as they slowed down, lining up and forming queues on their way to Dover, carrying British products headed for Europe. The ostensible reason was the outbreak of the more virulent form of covid-19 which was spreading across the British Isles. But there was another reason too, long foretold—Brexit.
At midnight as the year ended, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, with perhaps the first trade deal in the world which, as Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization noted, erected barriers instead of removing them.
As Scottish fishing companies, British food importers, and many other businesses found, the UK was entering a brave new world, of bureaucratic bottlenecks, with confounding rules and complicated systems that many businesses had no idea would emerge as the UK set itself free from what its politicians called the “Brussels bureaucracy".
The trade deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured—which Brexit’s advocates said would be easy to negotiate—was meant to maintain the tariff-free, quota-free access for British trade. But due to regulations concerning country of origin, if goods from the EU are brought into the UK and then re-exported to the EU, they now attract a tariff.
Many products were affected, but the saga of Percy Pig, a chewable sweet, is instructive. Sold at the British retailer Marks and Spencer, a 170g pack of the sweet costs £2.75, and comes in flavours like strawberry, raspberry, grape, and cherry. It is made under licence in Germany, brought to the UK, and then exported to Ireland, the kind of seamless, borderless commerce which was possible when the UK was part of the European Union. But not anymore.
British trade is intertwined with Europe far more than with any other region. In 2019, 43% of the UK’s exports went to the EU (down from 54% in 2002), and 52% of its imports were from the EU (down from 57% in 2006). Imports from the UK account for only 9% of EU’s imports, and EU exports 15% of its produce to the UK.
Tariffs, bureaucracy, and quotas will make it harder for the UK to trade with the EU. From being a rule-maker, the UK has become the rule-taker.
The impact is already being felt. Goods arriving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK now require checks and delays have risen at the port of Dover. Supermarket shelves are barren in many parts of the UK, and fresh vegetables— tomatoes, mushroom, mangetout, babycorn, beans, avocados—have all become scarce or expensive.
Deliveries have paused and retailers have complained of tariffs on re-exports which make business models unviable. Supermarkets which sell ready-to-eat foods have to deal with three layers of bureaucracy, for meat, dairy, and vegetables, and many such meals contain all three components.
Seafood from Scotland—langoustine, scallops, mussels, and lobsters—risk rotting in some French ports, according to reports. Even if refrigerated and frozen, if the fish is no longer fresh, customers are likely to reject consignments, businesses fear. The cost added due to additional paperwork can amount to £500 per product, according to an estimate.
Michael Gove, the minister in the cabinet office, warned British businesses to expect significant disruptions. Businesses of all sizes have had to adjust.
Asma Khan, the chef who runs the acclaimed Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express in London, has had to make adjustments to the wines she offers in her tasting menu. She heard of lower stocks of European wines because suppliers were afraid of moving products to the UK thanks to delays at ports. Triggered by Brexit fears, she has looked at English wines. There are shortages even in food takeaway materials like cardboard boxes and prices of chicken have gone up noticeably.
Dairy products such as cheeses, and cosmetics such as perfumes, are harder to find, and hoarding has begun. This is Britain, and making light of misery is a national pastime, and some do see the humour. “Expiry dates now loom on prized Camembert (cheese)—after all, we are a nation that loves to stockpile, although it was always toilet rolls before the cheese," says Saumya Balsari, award-winning author and senior member at Darwin College at Cambridge University.
Even big stores have run out of Chanel perfume, notes Mukulika Banerjee, professor at the London School of Economics. “Brexit is going to have a direct impact on academic life. LSE, where I teach, always attracts lots of smart European students who came as they had the same fee status as ‘home’ students. British students could also travel to Europe on academic exchange programmes like Erasmus. All that will come to a grinding halt," she added.
Gwen Burnyeat, junior research fellow at Merton College at Oxford University, concurs. She has heard of fewer applications to British universities from high-quality applicants from the EU, as they will now have to pay the same fees as non-EU students. “The brain drain begins," she says. Even performing artists will now need visas and work permits which will make it harder for individual artists to travel across borders and perform gigs.
And yet, Brexit-induced shortages haven’t dominated British headlines because of the larger, existential threat of the pandemic. British hospitals are at full capacity, as the new strain of the virus is spreading rapidly. The country has moved to a higher tier of lockdown, creating complicated rules about who one can dine with, exercise with, when one can step out, and what is simply not permissible.
An executive at a state-funded organization, who preferred anonymity because she is not authorized to speak in public, says people are preoccupied with other, more pressing concerns: “The Brexit implications, horrific as they are, feel more distanced."
Indeed, the University of Leicester academic and cricket historian Prashant Kidambi says: “It feels like someone has pressed the ‘mute’ button on the Brexit channel. Talk about the ending of the formal institutional link with the EU is now largely the preserve of the political class and political journalists. The ordinary person has simply switched off. The latest national lockdown, which may run well into the spring, feels like a continuation of the new normal. Most restaurants and shops are shuttered."
The Englishman’s home, long considered a castle, is now just that, and the Englishman has become a prisoner in that fortress.
There is a sense of exhaustion and fatigue among Britons. Burnyeat adds: “Many people are tired—of our mediocre and corrupt government, of the way that the Conservatives’ internal politics came to drive the UK into the ground, tired that the Labour’s internal politics meant that they were unable to stop it. It feels like there is no glimmer of hope on the horizon. We have lost all hope that our country can heal."
In their recent book, Brexitland, academics Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford argue that politics has turned tribal. Brexit, they say, brought into the open the conflicts which had been simmering in the society for decades, with ethno-nationalists opposed to mass immigration on one side, and liberals who like blended cultures on the other side.
Such dislike of outsiders is old. In 1968, Conservative parliamentarian Enoch Powell said there would be “rivers of blood" if immigration continued unchecked. One of the preposterous images the Leave campaign used during the EU referendum showed dozens immigrants threatening to enter the UK.
Voters swayed by such messages could not forgive Tony Blair, who opened British borders for EU immigrants during his prime ministership. There were 56,000 people born in Poland living in the UK in 2001, a figure that rose to 911,000 in 2016, for instance; and from 14,000 in 2004, Romanian-born people rose to 310,000 in 2016.
British homeowners couldn’t do without inexpensive contractors and workers from European countries (just as British farmers won’t be able to do without migrant labour from Europe), and yet many of them voted to leave the EU, which would dry up such a supply.
Not that immigration has stopped. In 2015, net immigration into the UK was 355,000, of which 166,000 came from non-European countries. In 2020, the figure (ending in March) was 374,000, of which 316,000 came from the rest of the world. This makes the UK’s immigrant pool less European—and far less attractive to ethno-nationalists.
The writer Ian Buruma, with a Dutch father and English mother, said that for Europeans, Britain represented a certain ideal of liberty and tolerance because of its relative openness to refugees from illiberal continental regimes. He continued: “It was a place where a man of Sephardic Jewish origin, Benjamin Disraeli, could become prime minister. The Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler, a former communist, called his adoptive country the ‘Davos for internally bruised veterans of the totalitarian age’."
And yet, the decline was foretold. As Irish writer Fintan O’Toole wrote recently: “How do you make a country smaller? By trying to make it great again." The desire to leave Europe revealed misplaced English nostalgia for a time that was never as sunny as being imagined now, nor practical today.
Britain’s shrinking may even become physical and political. Kidambi believes a Scottish referendum is now increasingly likely, “and who knows what will happen once that train sets off?" Northern Ireland voted to remain, and the animosities that tore apart the province are receding after two decades of strife-free peace following the Good Friday Agreement.
As publisher Michael Dwyer said, “Brexit is the last flailing arm of English nationalism, now that all the other limbs have been lopped off over the centuries. It is no small irony that ‘fixing’ Brexit was incurred at the price of a border with Northern Ireland and permanent disgruntlement in Scotland, which is part of the unstated or understated emotionalism driving the whole mad enterprise, for no one can sanely suggest it makes Britain a better place to be. It is monumental folly."
Dwyer said his Irish citizenship was confirmed just before Christmas so he feels relieved at least to be able to travel and settle in the EU without hindrance should it ever come to that. “This is the only practical step we took in anticipation of the Great Divorce other than stocking up on tinned tomatoes," he says.
Irony is one way the British cope with adversities, and humour is emerging as a coping mechanism. Novelist Susie Boyt says no one is taking down Christmas decorations in London. She sees blazing trees and front gardens with fairy lights in the second week of January. “Usually I am desperate for (my tree) to be gone and to reclaim the space and the light in the sitting room. I have the sense that it would be irresponsible to remove something so cheery just now... I am clinging to Christmas and its comforts," she said.
The final irony of Brexit is, as O’Toole contends, that there is now no scapegoat. Since 1973, the year the UK joined the EU, its politicians could direct public anger towards ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ for their own failings, stoking the mythologies the British tabloids revelled in.
In 1962, Dean Acheson, who was president Truman’s secretary of state, had said in a famous speech at West Point: “Great Britain had lost an Empire but not yet found a role." Now, the UK has given up being a major voice in the world’s largest trading community in a world of increasing uncertainties. Failure may be inevitable, but it won’t be heroic.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York