Border closure in the Channel: continent cut off
THE TWO big stories in Britain in 2020, Brexit and covid-19, have developed in parallel, without having much impact on each other. But as the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31st draws near, David Gauke, a former Tory Lord Chancellor, points out that as in “a TV series finale, the plots are finally brought together”.
The event that has united the two storylines is the emergence of a new variant of the covid-19 virus, thought to be particularly contagious, which has led many countries in Europe and beyond to ban entry from Britain, just as the negotiations over a post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and the European Union go into their final days. The location for this final act is the south-eastern county of Kent, which is both where the variant was first identified and home to the port of Dover. The port, through which 90% of Britain’s lorry traffic with the EU passes, was steeling itself to deal with problems on December 31st, but trouble came early. On December 20th it was shut because of the closure of France’s border. By lunchtime on December 21st, the Road Haulage Association (RHA), a trade body, said the queue of lorries on the M20 to Dover was several miles long.
The impact will be felt well beyond Kent, and not just by marooned lorry drivers. British shoppers may find fresh produce in short supply: Richard Burnett of the RHA said that “a lot of EU drivers and hauliers are refusing to come to the UK” and Sainsbury, a supermarket, has warned that there could be shortages of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and citrus fruit, all of which come across the English Channel to Dover. Businesses throughout the country are vulnerable. France has called for a strict new covid-19 testing regime to be put in place before borders can be opened again. Given the existing strains on testing capacity in Britain, that might be difficult to achieve.
Three themes have led the storylines to intertwine in the “Christmas from Hell” episode. One is the nature of viruses, which tend to mutate. The sudden leap forward that covid-19 has taken appears to have made it more contagious. Nobody is quite sure whether the variant originated in Britain, or was identified there because British scientists have done so much sequencing of the virus’s genome. But the virus’s spread has accelerated in Britain—covid-19 cases nearly doubled in the week to December 20th—leading its government to go back on plans to loosen restrictions for Christmas and other countries’ governments to play it safe by banning travel from Britain.
The nature of negotiations is also responsible for the end-year crisis. It is four years since Britain voted to leave the EU, more than a year since the Withdrawal Agreement between Britain and the EU was agreed on and only ten days until the transition period ends, yet arguments over the final elements of the deal persist. The two main sticking points are fish and the “level playing field”—how to ensure that competition between the two sides remains fair even as their regulatory systems diverge over time. Both sides want a deal but neither wants to budge, so the negotiations are trundling towards the end-year cliff-edge. If Britain leaves without a deal, trade in goods will face tariffs—on agricultural products, of up to 40%—and more paperwork. Stockpiling by retailers, worried about end-year disruption, exacerbated the lorry tailbacks that were already causing problems in Kent.
Finally, what Mr Gauke identifies as the government’s “optimism bias” has also contributed to this crisis. Throughout the pandemic and the Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson—whose reluctance to deliver bad news is well known—has over-promised and under-delivered. By consistently looking on the bright side, the prime minister has failed to prepare for a darker outcome. So he was slow to put the country into lockdown in March, thus exacerbating the initial outbreak, slow to get a test-and-trace system up and running, and slow to react to news of the new covid-19 strain. And on Brexit, his government has consistently promised that the deal would be “the easiest in human history” and that “we hold all the cards”. Given that Britain is more vulnerable to the consequences of “no deal” than any other European country, that is patently untrue; and yet the government appears to believe it enough to take Britain to the cliff-edge, and perhaps over it.
Still, although the season finale will be unpleasant for most Britons, it could yet be spun into good news for the government. If Brexit-related chaos is subsumed into covid-related chaos, then it can try blaming shortages in the shops on a combination of nature and the dastardly French, who provide a handy scapegoat when Britain messes up.
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