By Mohamed Chebaro*
Whatever happens in the UK, please blame the EU, not Brexit.
Road, rail and ferry crossings to mainland Europe from the UK at this time of year are very busy, as is the case with transport hubs elsewhere in the world. Yet for Britons the picture is more dramatic as the country adjusts to Brexit arrangements that are still in the works two years after the formal exit treaty was signed with Brussels.
Problems at the Dover ferry crossing and the Folkestone Channel Tunnel last weekend were due to slow processing on the French side of the border. In addition, we are told, staff shortages among UK border and customs officials are to blame. The bottom line is that leaving the EU was on paper, but the practical steps to reverse 40 years of free movement of people and goods will take longer to put in place without causing friction.
Other critical transport hubs in the UK fared no better. Airport baggage handlers and shortages of ground staff, from check-in to security, have disrupted the travel experiences of thousands of vacationers before, during and after peak summer periods.
Inevitably, a blame game started between London and Paris over last weekend’s delays that left traveling families and lorry drivers waiting for hours. Port authorities in Dover have accused French police in Calais of being understaffed, while French authorities report a lack of British border staff on the French side of the border.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, a candidate to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, jumped into the fray, saying the delays were “appalling, unacceptable and entirely avoidable”. Many believe his intervention is in line with the Johnson government’s tendency to blame anyone but the UK in the post-Brexit era. Talking tough may be part of Truss’s campaign strategy to appeal to the Conservative Party base ahead of the vote to decide the next Conservative leader and prime minister when Johnson leaves in September.
Whichever party is to blame, Lucy Moreton, general secretary of the UK Immigration Services Union, said disruption and long queues were to be expected after Brexit. She reminded everyone that the main raison d’être of the EU is to facilitate the movement of goods and people between Member States. The United Kingdom has never been part of the Schengen borderless zone and has retained its border controls. But leaving the EU has consequences, and this is one of them.
Border controls, as well as additional paperwork for freight and traffic, have been reintroduced. Bottlenecks and queues of trucks have been seen since then, but this summer is the first with unrestricted travel for the public since pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Officials on both sides of the Channel admit more preparation should have taken place before Brexit.
Johnson made “taking back control” of Britain’s borders a rallying call for his Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. However, since becoming Prime Minister, he has found this difficult to achieve.
The list of post-Brexit problems is growing day by day. Migrants in rubber dinghies continue to arrive on British shores, truck drivers are scarce, agricultural produce is left to rot in the fields for lack of seasonal European pickers, and system failures at airports have been more frequent in due to a lack of labor after many EU citizens returned home during the pandemic and did not bother to complete visa and residency forms in order to work in the UK again .
The extra paperwork for export costs almost bankrupts fishing companies. Inflation is expected to remain high for longer in the UK compared to other G7 countries. The rise in the cost of living is blamed by the government mainly on the war in Ukraine and an increase in oil and gas prices. But a recent report from the London School of Economics found that new post-Brexit trade barriers have pushed up the cost of British food by 6%, a further factor in soaring UK inflation, which is now 9% and growing.
Britain’s exit from the Northern Ireland Protocol is likely to also make it a law-breaking country, in the same way as its law-breaking Prime Minister.
A serious crash, staff shortages and delays may have worsened last weekend’s standoff, but as the UK government has said, stringent passport checks will likely take longer, suppressing the experience almost transparent pre-Brexit times.
Going forward, the EU is set to update its entry system in 2023, with more red tape replacing the passport entry and exit stamp, as well as mandatory fingerprinting and biometric photography travellers’ faces. The EU is expected to introduce an ‘entry and exit system’ which will register the movements of visitors to the Schengen area based on a pre-travel registration network known as the European Information and travel authorisation, which will be compulsory for citizens of “third countries” such as the United Kingdom.
In short, Brexit polarized the UK during the referendum, but continues to divide the country even today. The government has clearly failed in its mission to provide economically viable alternatives to reduce the shock of divorce settlements and ensure a flexible business and employment market, which was once the catalyst for the country’s economic strength.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with over 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defence, current affairs and diplomacy.