The government plans to increase the cost of doing business in Britain by a total of £330 million a year.
Starting at the end of the month and again in April, it will begin imposing a battery of border controls on agricultural trade with the EU. Violent protests by farmers and fishermen have delayed these checks five times. But Rishi Sunak is desperate to be macho on Brexit. It is vital that Labor’s Keir Starmer takes action and promises to reverse the controls as soon as he takes office. The question is: does he have the courage?
These checks are in addition to the selective checks already imposed on British goods entering Europe. They are beyond comprehension. Armies of (non-existent) veterinarians will have to certify meat and fish products. Plants transported during their growth cycle will need to be inspected and tested for “biosecurity”. Warehouses and truck parks need to be prepared, officials recruited and paperwork completed.
The horticulture industry warned this week that it faced an “existential threat”. Flowers are sensitive to time. A Dutch exporter estimates that a petunia grown partly in the Netherlands and Britain will require 59 bureaucratic steps. He is unlikely to survive. The shellfish industry, which also depends on speed of transport, is going through a difficult time knowing whether it can continue to export to Europe. Estimates of the cost of the new checks are scarcely believable: the government admitted last October that it would be in the region of £330 million a year, which will inevitably be passed on to the consumer in terms of price.
Leaving an open mainland market would always carry high risk for an offshore island, especially when that market had spent four decades developing specializations and complex supply chains. Thatcher saw Europe’s sophisticated trading zone as one of her proudest achievements. Brexit supporters casually dismissed its benefits, saying they were outweighed by freedom from European bureaucracy. Their bureaucracy is gargantuan in comparison. Leaving the single market was reckless and misleading – and was not required by Brexit itself.
Starmer has shown himself to be indecisive and spineless on this subject. And this, despite the proven fact that public opinion has turned against Brexit and that a majority people think that leaving the EU was a bad decision. Although mere exhaustion could delay the question of the UK’s return to the EU, this does not necessarily apply to the customs unions and treaties that form the European Economic Area.
Labor is clearly averse to controversy and wants the next election campaign to remain a festival of platitudes. This should not prevent him from exploiting a policy area now crucial to the cost of living. That should certainly not stop Starmer’s policy team from preparing what is expected to be a rapid review of Britain’s trading relationship with Europe.
The proposed new border regime promises to be a disaster for Britain’s agriculture and food supply, imposing a completely unnecessary cost on food bills. The ministers themselves are afraid, as shown by the fact that they have so often postponed the arrival of the new regime. Starmer is now expected to ask for a further delay until after the election and pledge to carry out an immediate review if he takes power. This is not an outlandish request. But does he have the courage?