Article Published November 9th, 2020

Political slogans, by their nature, often tend to over-simplify or even deceive. This tendency is presumably eternal and certainly preceded the Brexit experience. However, the insistence on certain questionable mantras has been exceptionally prominent to the project of removing the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU). They have involved assertions about dubious sums of money or vague concepts of ‘taking back control’. Other words and phrases that were either empty or proved to be false have included ‘Brexit means Brexit’; the idea of retaining access to the Single Market on the ‘exact same terms’; and the ‘oven ready’ deal, upon which the UK government has subsequently openly taken steps to renege.

Another heavily promoted slogan – the centrepiece of a government advertising campaign – has been ‘Get Ready for Brexit’. It first appeared last year, in advance of 31 October 2019, one of the numerous projected – then postponed – departure dates. At the time, it appeared to represent more an expression of political intent by the Boris Johnson government than – as it purported to be – a component of a useful public information initiative. Johnson failed to achieve Brexit at this point. The term subsequently reappeared in July 2020. This time around it has been used to refer to the need for businesses to prepare for the cessation of the transition period that is due at the end of 2020.

It seems intended to convey the sense that there are certain clearly defined actions that it is the responsibility of the private sector to take; and that having done so, they will be ready to avoid the downsides and reap the benefits of Brexit. In such a scenario, any difficulties they experience will be a consequence of their own shortcomings. A closer inspection of the implications of the ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign serves to call into question such logic. It serves in turn to illuminate some of the wider difficulties connected to the project of UK departure from the EU. First there is a credibility problem. As we have seen, businesses have been told previously to prepare for an imminent change – using the same slogan – that did not come. Whether wisely or otherwise, they might during the course of this year have suspected – or hoped – that some kind of prolongation of existing terms of trade might come about once more. They might have derived encouragement for such an outlook from the already-established track-record of last-minute postponement and compromise around Brexit. Drawing on this experience, they may have formed the view that there is no cut-off point beyond which a certain outcome becomes clear. This attitude seems to mean that, for many commercial entities, it is now already too late fully to ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ – in as far as it is possible to do so.

But what is it that they should prepare for, and what does such preparation entail? Uncertainty has been a continual feature of Brexit, and it has persisted during the post-departure negotiations of 2020. We do not know if a deal will be reached; the precise form it might take; and what precisely the lack of an agreement would mean. The unwillingness of the UK government to concede some of the less than palatable realities of Brexit, and to acknowledge that to a significant extent the UK is in a position of weakness relative to the EU has served to cloud matters further. What does seem clear is that, other than a simple extension of the transition period, which would seem politically difficult, significant friction will be introduced into trade between the UK and EU – a problem for both parties, but greater for the former, given the relative size of the two. As an EU Commission document of August put it:

Even if an ambitious free trade area is established…between the EU and the UK, providing for zero tariffs and zero quotas on goods, and with customs and regulatory cooperation, all products traded between the EU and the United Kingdom will be subject to any applicable regulatory compliance checks and controls on imports for safety, health and other public policy purposes.’

An extensive Free Trade Agreement will, in any case, be difficult to achieve in the available time. Regardless, new bureaucratic compliance burdens will appear; and delays and disruption at and around the border seem likely. A recent National Audit Office report found that:

‘The end of the transition period is unlike any previous EU Exit deadline in that, regardless of the outcome of negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, things will change…It is very unlikely that all traders, industry and third parties will be ready for the end of the transition period, particularly if the EU implements its stated intention of introducing full controls at its border from 1 January 2021…There is a risk that widespread disruption could ensue at a time when government and businesses continue to deal with the effects of COVID-19.’

Based on this report and other evidence, some observations can be made. Matters identified as giving rise to complications include: excise and VAT; chemicals; labelling, authorisations, marking and certificates; rules of origin; road transport; professional qualifications; energy; aviation licences; financial services; civil and company law; and data. In all these cases it is difficult to predict how much disruption there will be. But the UK and its regulatory standards will no longer be integrated seamlessly into the EU as they once were. It is inevitable that administrative requirements will become more extensive and some disruption will ensure. The only questions are by how much and in what way.

Likely consequential practical difficulties include the capacity of arrangements for enabling the transit of goods; and the readiness of private sector bodies to comply with new requirements. The government’s own planning allows for the possibility of several thousand lorries queuing to cross the Channel. Complex forms of compliance will be placed upon hauliers. The pandemic will aggravate all of these problems; and make efforts to manage their impact more difficult. Implementing the Northern Ireland protocol will be more difficult still. A further moment of tension involves the point, in July 2021, at which the UK will introduce import controls in full. It is not clear that UK authorities or commercial operations will be ready for this change. Furthermore, additional complications around EU-UK relations, implying more instability, might have arisen during the year.

None of these outcomes were advertised as part of the Brexit prospectus on 23 June 2016. Those who sought to raise them have been liable to denunciation as scaremongering members of a treacherous political elite. Faced with the reality of existence outside the EU, such claims could shortly become increasingly difficult to sustain. With the leave vote of 2016, the UK put itself in the vanguard of an international political tendency founded in aggressive caricature and misrepresentation. There is now reason to believe that this movement could now be in retreat. A visible unravelling of the Brexit programme could contribute to this reversal.