There is a gaping void at the heart of the government's no-deal Brexit preparation documents

The reality is that so much would be entirely out of ministers’ hands, leaving us at the mercy of decisions taken in Europe

Ben Chu
Economics Editor
Thursday 23 August 2018 11:46
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?

Credit card charges, cigarette packet health warnings, the Erasmus student exchange programme.

Some of the details plucked out of the government’s first tranche of no-deal Brexit “technical notices” are interesting and alarming, but ultimately economically trivial.

The major issues for the UK economy – and the ones that ought to be front and centre of all this – are the movement of goods, keeping planes flying and the Irish border.

The Brexit secretary Dominic Raab says the UK would waive approvals on medicine and food imports from the EU.

We might stop to admire the irony that “taking back control” through a no-deal Brexit would thus mean a newly “independent” Britain relying on an EU drug and food safety approval regime.

But what if there’s transport disruption at the ports due to new “third-country” checks on containers? Even if the UK government waves drug supplies through they could very easily be delayed in transit to our hospitals and chemists. And food supplies could be held up on their way to supermarkets.

Raab claims the UK already has the legal powers “to support British truckers to continue operating internationally”.

But note that the Road Haulage Association doesn’t believe it. The group predicts that in a no-deal scenario “Kent and the area around Calais will become the world’s largest lorry park within two days”.

It seems that even the government doesn’t believe there will be no transport disruption, having now asked pharmaceutical companies to stockpile six weeks of medicine and encouraged suppliers to arrange short shelf-life medicines to be air-freighted.

But what if planes are grounded because aviation is not covered by World Trade Organisation rules and requires a bilateral political agreement? What use is air freight then?

Perhaps the answer will be in the remaining 55 no-deal preparation documents still to be released. But don’t hold your breath.

For as Raab also admitted today, there’s no guarantee the EU would reciprocate on fast-tracking UK exports through their own ports without checks. Where would these new delays leave UK exporters? British farmers? Multinationals with cross-border supply chains?

“Who is credibly suggesting, in a no-deal scenario, that the EU would not want to continue to sell food to UK consumers?” asks Raab, addressing the fact that sandwich makers have warned about major disruption to supplies in the event of no deal.

But is he suggesting that the EU would be willing to open up a giant UK-sized hole in its customs union and single market just to benefit Continental sandwich ingredient exporters? Or even for the sake of its car manufacturers?

And bear in mind that UK Brexit fanatics have been demanding a total repudiation of the authority of the legal and regulatory institutions of the EU and calling for the unilateral dropping of existing product safety standards.

What basis would the EU have for trusting that the UK would assiduously shadow the EU regulatory rulebook for food and medicines after a no-deal rupture, especially one that has created rivers of bad blood?

Raab talks of the “smooth, continued, functioning of business, transport, infrastructure, research, air programmes and funding streams that have previously come from the EU”.

But the reality is that so much would be entirely out of ministers’ hands after a no-deal Brexit, leaving us at the mercy of decisions taken in Europe.

For all their detail, these documents only serve to highlight that gaping void – and catastrophic loss of control.

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