Richard North, 13/06/2020  

The Times has caught up (paywall) with yesterday's story about the government's plans to waive border checks on incoming goods, come the beginning of next year when the transition period ends. Apparently, it isn't quite the free-for-all that might have been imagined. The government is planning to phase the implementation of controls, with three "waypoints": January, April and July.

From January, full customs checks and tariffs will be applied to what are known as "controlled goods". These include alcohol, tobacco and firearms. For other goods, importers will have up to six months to submit completed customs declarations and to pay any tariff that they have accrued. There is no general payment waiver, and records will have to be kept.

There will also be limited phytosanitary checks, but these will only apply to live animals (which will, presumably, take in pets) and high-risk plants. The health checks will be widened out in April, when all products of animal origin including, meat and meat products, pet food, honey, milk or egg products will have to pass through inspection points. Pre-notification will be required and, one presumes, fees will be payable.

After six months, starting on 1 July, the government then intends to make all goods subject to customs declarations at the point of importation, with tariffs payable on entry. The levels have yet to be settled.

The more immediate story though, is that Michael Gove (also paywall) has formally told Maros Sefcovic, an EU Commission vice-president, that there will be no extension to the transition period.

This actually came from Sefcovic himself at the European Commission in Brussels, from whom we learn that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster "could not have been clearer" in his formal notice to the Commission. Apparently, "he explained this was the promise that was given to the British citizens in the electoral campaign".

"[He] was", Sefcovic said, "very clear, unequivocal on the fact that the UK is not going to seek the extension and because this was the last joint committee before the deadline expires we take this decision as a definitive one". And, with that, he made a plea for "acceleration of work on all fronts".

Gove himself has confirmed the news, saying: "We have informed the EU that we will not extend the transition period. The moment for extension has now passed".

This, of course, means that the UK needs to make preparations to implement the Irish protocol, the agreed controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea, of which at the moment there are few signs of readiness. Sefcovic wants more details from Whitehall on its plans. A UK command paper was "long on aspiration but short on detail", he says.

Unsurprisingly, Michel Barnier is on the case. "We must now progress on substance", he tweeted as it was confirmed the end of June deadline would expire without a request for an extension.

It is now down to Johnson and three presidents of the major EU institutions to set the pace in their virtual meeting on Monday, with a programme of intensified negotiations arranged for July. A Downing Street spokesman is telling us that, "This new process will involve a mix of formal negotiating rounds and smaller group meetings, both in London and Brussels".

The joke of the moment, though, is the UK government statement which declares that, on 1 January, "the UK will regain its economic and political independence", making out that these words actually have any meaning.

Clearly unaware of the irony, the government had churned this stuff out just as the ONS reported that April's GDP dropped 20 percent on the previous month, effectively wiping out 18 years of economic growth. Together with March's figures, total value is down more than a quarter.

This is the "economic independence" of the poor house, where the government is now slave to the cold winds of a global economic recession that could well drag out into a prolonged depression which could redefine global politics as well.

In fact, the OECD forecast for the UK is a 14 percent contraction of the economy on the year. Technically, if we get sustained recession for two or more years, or a decline in real GDP of at least ten percent, that is a depression. Arguably, we are already in depression territory.

Despite that, Johnson is burbling about a "bounce back", apparently planning on driving a consumer-led boom, with a visit to the high street in his first public appearance since the start of the lockdown. That is what it has come down to: a prime minister telling people to buy stuff from shops.

The experience, as The Times has discovered, may be shopping, but not as we know it, Jim. If you want to try on a pair of shoes at Kurt Geiger on Monday, it says (not that I would know what that is) "the assistant will first snap on some blue plastic gloves".

Then, the paper tells us, "You have to sanitise your hands, put on disposable socks and quite possibly queue to be seated. If the assistant has chosen to wear a mask as well as gloves, you will find that you are being served by someone who looks like a dentist". I suppose, if you are lucky, you might be able to get some quick root canal treatment on the side.

Here, the obvious point is that, as long as social distancing and other Covid measures are in place, there can be no normality about retail sales and, without that normality, there won't be the volume that is needed to drive a recovery. And then, with the economic uncertainty, ordinary people would be mad to spend on anything other then essentials, much less take on additional debt.

As for politics, over the last weeks or so, the government seems to have ceded its independence to the mob, with the authorities boarding up statues and, in London, boxing in Churchill and the Cenotaph. If that's what political independence looks like, then Churchill lived in vain.

The sorry part of this, though, is that the free trade mantra, so beloved of the Tory headbangers, begets interdependence. That word, believe it or not, means that we all depend on each other – the global village and all that. It is the very antithesis of independence, unless that is defined incredibly narrowly.

And that, for the time being, is the game the Tories are playing. As it stands, the practical implication is that we must open our country to the free flow of goods, with no significant border checks, thus exposing us to a torrent of sub-standard products and counterfeit dross. We are so "independent" that we are unable to do it any other way.

Thus, we are not so "independent" that we are able to take total control of our own border controls. We must simply be content with the idea that, if we were able, we would not have to coordinate them with our nearest neighbours in order to maximise efficiency and ensure the free flow of goods.

Instead, we have to phase them in to match practical realities, with much of the planning on a wing and a prayer, as there are no facilities at many of the ports to make the intended checks, and no provision for financing the infrastructure. Many of the smaller ports will die.

Independence, therefore, amounts to conferring on ourselves the "freedom" to have our imports and exports massively disrupted, at considerable extra expense. And while our politics are similarly constrained, our economy goes further down the drain.

No doubt, this will all come out in the wash. In a decade or so, additional border controls will have become the new normal, and new generations will grow up never having known any different. But one cannot help think that we will have lost something.

In this context, "independence" also means the freedom to cooperate with our neighbours. The original objections were to membership of the EU, as a supranational construct. Nothing in the book said we had to be different, just for the sake of it. That's not what independence is about.

Thus, in the hands of this government, it looks as if "independence day" is going to be a bitter-sweet moment – fine in theory but totally mangled in practice. 

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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