Article Published September 29th, 2020

In recent weeks Michael Gove has admitted to the House of Commons that the end of the transition period could lead next year to queues of “up to 7000 HGVs in Kent” and that a system of “Kent Access Permits” would be necessary to manage the congestion. The Road Hauliers Association told the media that its meeting with Michael Gove on 17th September “fell far short of our expectations.” A representative of the British Veterinary Association has, meanwhile, complained about the inadequacy of governmental guidance on the new checks on agri-food that will be required from 1st January. Business groups in Northern Ireland have reiterated their concerns about the now exacerbated uncertainty of their position under the Withdrawal Agreement. Leaders of the pharmaceutical industry have added their voice, warning that patients could face delays in obtaining medicines in the New Year.

It is obvious from these and many other examples that governmental preparations for the abrupt changes to the functioning of British trade with continental Europe in 2021 are badly behind hand.

It cannot be stressed too often that many of these changes will need to be made whether the UK leaves the transition period with or without a “deal.” Once Theresa May proclaimed in 2017 that the UK would be leaving both the European Single Market and the Customs Union in her version of Brexit, it was inevitable that substantial new administrative resources would be required to supervise British trade with its continental neighbours. This need might be mitigated by a broad free trade agreement signed after Brexit, but it would not be eliminated.  With the transition period having lasted until December 2020, the government therefore had nearly four years to prepare for necessary changes. The reasons why they have largely failed to do so throw interesting light on the underlying nature of the Brexit project.

Hollow promises

The referendum was won in 2016 on the promise that no or minimal economic disruption would follow upon the UK’s leaving the European Union. Some voters would have been prepared to countenance some such disruption in the hope of recovering supposedly lost national sovereignty, but their numbers fell far short of assuring a majority for the Leave campaign. Copious reassurance was therefore offered by Brexit’s advocates that Brexit was an economically unthreatening choice. Indeed, it would supposedly liberate hitherto latent but constrained economic capacities. This reassurance was effective in winning the 2016 referendum campaign but created for the government seeking to implement Brexit an unpleasant dilemma. Undertaking the serious and highly visible work necessary to reflect the real and disruptive consequences of Brexit would be an implicit recognition of the hollowness of the promises made in 2016. Inaction on the other hand would render the eventual impact of Brexit yet more traumatic and politically damaging. Faced with this uncongenial choice, the government opted for equivocation, claiming for many months and years that a wide-ranging free trade agreement was achievable that would indeed pre-empt the need for border formalities. It was only at the beginning of 2020 that it began seriously to recognise and plan in a meaningful way for these inevitable extra formalities. This was too little too late. The Covid-19 pandemic and the continuing reluctance of Ministers consistently and honestly to present the disagreeable impending changes to British business have brought painfully slow progress towards equipping British business for the inevitable changes to come.

There was of course a certain cynical political rationality in thus postponing for as long as possible public realisation of the mendacity of the Leave campaign in 2016. This rationality was however conjoined with what can only be described as “magical thinking.”  At every step of the Brexit negotiations it has been clear that the EU, as the larger partner well-versed in trade negotiations, was in a much stronger position than the UK. Throughout most of the negotiations the reaction of the British side has been to act as if it accepted this imbalance, but then vigorously to deny any such imbalance to the outside world. In making these public denials, British negotiators seem genuinely to have believed that they were in some way strengthening their hand. If they believed hard enough in their ability to make a reality of the chimera of a painless Brexit, then apparently that belief would eventually rub off on the EU’s representatives as well. If these were unconvinced, then that must be because some British negotiators were not strong enough believers, or no believers at all. It is easy to see how such an attitude would be a deterrent for both Ministers and civil servants considering when and how to manage and mitigate the disruption wrought by Brexit. Public preparations for a disruptive Brexit, particularly before the UK left the Union, would be a betrayal of British negotiators by confirming to the EU’s representatives that the UK would be adversely affected by Brexit. The EU might well suspect this to be so but could never be sure until it received confirmation by the public actions of the British side.

Brussels’ bad faith?

These self-regarding fantasies have had little impact on the EU. They have however played an important part in the malformation of British public opinion, which has been encouraged to believe that a benign and relatively trouble-free outcome to the Brexit negotiations is entirely plausible. If there is “no deal” for Brexit by the end of the year, very few voters will have followed the course of the negotiations sufficiently closely to realise that this outcome could easily have been avoided had they and their government made different political choices. British voters are more likely to assume, and the government will deluge them with specious reasons to assume, that the impasse is exclusively due to EU intransigence and unreliability. The hesitant inadequacy of British preparations for the end of the transition period is an integral part of this government’s communications strategy. It does not want the electorate to have too clear an image of the inevitable negative consequences of Brexit, even at this late stage. It would much rather pretend that any disruption caused by “no deal” or even by an inadequate “deal” is simply the unpredictable culmination of a process driven by bad faith and irrationality on the EU side.

There are striking parallels between the way this government has handled Covid-19 and its approach to the Brexit negotiations. In both cases, reality has taken second place to public relations, with the recurrent consequence that unwelcome decisions have been taken too late. The communication of these eventual decisions has then been overlain by contradictory and undermining rhetoric from Ministers and their press retainers. It is not fanciful to see in both Covid-19 and the Brexit negotiations a parallel diminution of state capacity for the UK, in which the balance between political decision-making and objective advice from the civil service has been abandoned for ever. As the civil service has lost over the past ten years of economic austerity in numbers, in authority and in prestige, so mediocre politicians and their over-confident advisers have rushed in to fill the vacuum. British political culture has become less rational, less tolerant and less productive as a result. The malevolent and ultimately successful campaigns by the Conservative Party and its supporters in the print media against Sir Oliver Robbins and Sir Mark Sedwill are striking illustrations of this process. Neither man had been prepared to accept that external reality could be shaped exclusively by the shifting political preferences of the Conservative Party. Sir Oliver in particular was roundly vilified for his attempts to inject at least some objectivity into the fantasy-driven Brexit process.

When the transition period ends on 31st December 2020, it is apparent that the UK will be ill-prepared to meet the new trading formalities that will arise from its self-chosen status as a third country vis-à-vis its most important trading partner. In part this will be a function of generally declining state capacity in the UK and in part a function of the specific incompetence of the Ministers responsible for managing the Brexit process. Most of all, however, this unpreparedness will be an entirely fitting symbol of Brexit as a whole. Brexit is a rash, ill-conceived enterprise, based almost entirely on slogans and delusion. This government’s preparations for the wholly predictable disruption to British trade at the beginning of next year conform faithfully to this depressing template. Next year will see a government which has always lauded Brexit for supposedly cutting Brussels “red tape” itself confronted by a slew of new administrative formalities generated by Brexit.  The self-destructive irony of Brexit will continue to manifest itself after the end of the transition period, just as it has over the painful years since 2016.