Richard North, 25/02/2021  

You have to enjoy the irony, because there's very little else to enjoy. Here we have Johnson's "oven-ready" deal, the draft Withdrawal Agreement, on which he won the 2019 general election. And now the accompanying Irish Protocol, which has been steadily implemented since I January, is already unravelling.

Yesterday was supposed to be the big day, a meeting of the UK-EU Joint Committee, at which the UK was to propose an extension of the "grace period" due to end on 1 April when all retail agri-food products will require EU Export Health Certificates (EHCs) to move from Britain in to Northern Ireland.

Tensions, we are told, "were high", and although Northern Ireland's first minister, Arlene Foster, went into the meeting without "high expectations" – "given the attitude of the European Commission thus far" - she came out shocked by Brussels' "stubborn and inflexible response", blasting European officials as "tone deaf".

Meanwhile, a junior DUP minister, Gary Middleton, warned that the Irish Sea checking processes could become “overwhelmed” when the first grace period ends, telling a Stormont committee, "We can't have a situation where the internal market of the United Kingdom is disrupted so much to the point where it's effectively crippling our businesses".

While the Committee co-chairs, Michael Gove and the EU vice-president, Maroš Šefcovic, churned out an anodyne joint statement, reiterated their commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol, vowing to find solutions to problems, Foster declared that it was up to Johnson, whose train-wreck this Protocol is , "to step up and protect the United Kingdom internal market".

This, of course, is only one element of the creaking post-Brexit system, with the legacy media pausing briefly from their wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19 to give an overview of the near two-months (lack of) progress since the end of the transition period.

Typical of the output is a piece by Channel 4 News which tots up some of the aggrieved sectors, "fish, fashion, fun, finance and flowers" to make up a string of F-words.

I guess architects, chemicals, cyclists, equestrians, famers, gin and whisky distillers, the meat industry, motor sport, pharmaceutical industries, and many more, simply didn't make the cut. But then, you can only expect so much of the attention span of TV reporters.

Adding to the ever-growing list is a sector I would never have thought of, the UK guitar buyers, with one prominent retailer describing the situation as "a car crash", which makes a change from the more usual train wreck.

A motorbike racing writer is also pitching in, explaining what Brexit means for British teams and riders. There are, we are told, only two major British teams competing in world championship racing, both of them in World Superbike: the factory BMW squad of Shaun Muir Racing and the factory Yamaha outfit of Crescent Racing.

SMR and Crescent are big enough to have the resources to work at addressing any issues created by Brexit, but these same issues will also affect smaller, less well-financed teams and riders who want to go racing or testing in Europe.

SMR and Crescent say costs will rise and both are considering moving their racing operations to Europe, to avoid the border complications of regularly taking staff, trucks, race bikes and equipment into and out of the EU. Crescent is already setting up a company in the Republic of Ireland to give itself an EU base.

We get some detail on carnets – nothing new to this blog's readers – with concerns about the financial impact. Basic cost of a carnet is around £300, plus a refundable deposit of 40 percent of the value of the van/truck and everything inside it, or a non-refundable insurance premium to cover the 40 percent.

Shaun Muir Racing puts the cost of an annual EU carnet for a race truck at between £4000 and £5000. Muir takes four trucks onto the Continent, Crescent takes two. And although the carnets are valid for 12 months and multiple trips, if the items listed change significantly, new carnets are needed.

"Carnet fees and agency fees are quite painful", says Paul Denning, boss of Crescent, which runs the Pata Yamaha operation with riders Toprak Razgatlioglu and Andrea Locatelli. "We are a well-established team and company so we can put time, money and human resources into doing that. Does all this make it unattractive for smaller teams running out of the UK on shoestring budgets in World Supersport 300 or 600? Yes. Does it make it impossible? Maybe. Either way it's a massive pain".

Getting people into Europe is the next issue. We are told that there is currently a lot of confusion regarding the status of UK race staff that need to make work visits in EU states, due to glaring ambiguities in official documents. No one seems quite sure of whether British riders and team staff will need work visas and permits for each EU country they visit.

"Visas are a whole other nightmare", adds Denning. "The real problem is that for every regulation there seems to be something else that contradicts that regulation. Some people say we don't need visas or work permits, others say we do. If we have to go down that road we’re told the estimate for an all-singing, all-dancing Italian work visa is anywhere between £1,500 and £3,000 per person. And that's just one country".

I'm surprised that the national media haven't picked this up yet. As so often, the details are confined to trade magazines, leaving the big titles to chunter away at generalities and the easy-picking of ready-packaged think-tank reports and industry surveys.

The latter is the fare on offer from the Guardian which has filleted a press release from Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS), to tell us that a survey of 350 supply chain managers found that two out of three had experienced delays of "at least two to three days" getting goods into the UK, compared with 38 percent who reported delays in a similar survey in January.

A third of this group said the delays were "significantly longer" than in January, 28 percent said "slightly longer" and 15 percent reported delays of a similar length to January. Just 18 percent of those surveyed by the said they had experienced no delays or fewer delays. The situation was only slightly better for exports, with 44 percent experiencing delays of at least two to three days getting goods into the EU.

Interestingly, the paper also notes that the UK's largest chemical producers, BASF, has revealed that it has experienced "substantial friction" from the new trade barriers caused by withdrawal from the EU, although we get no detail.

This firm we profiled last October, where the company's Neil Hollis warned that the chemical industry could suffer losses of £1 billion, through new registration costs, a loss of innovation and some chemicals no longer being available.

"There's no positive spin on this", Hollis said at the time. as the UK prepared to pull out of REACH, in favour of its own regulation. "To put it bluntly, chemicals available now will remain on the EU market, but will disappear from the UK market", he warned.

Although the Guardian can only grudgingly award one short paragraph to the company – against dozens of pieces about the thespians and wandering minstrels - the New York Times devoted a whole piece to the British chemical industry last month.

It wrote of the firm of Teal & Mackrill in Hull, which makes paints for special applications, like fishing trawlers and factory floors. In a "little-noticed consequence of the new Brexit trade deal", this paper said, "the company is facing real concerns about its future".

Owner Geoff Mackril said that growing British regulatory burdens on chemicals may mean that eventually he would not be able to obtain some of the additives that make his paints distinctive. "The worry is that some of those materials that we use", he said, "may become unavailable because of those costs".

This was a concern that is spread across Britain's £33 billion a year chemical industry, with BASF estimating that UK REACH could cost the company £70 million. "If the costs of bringing products to the UK market rise to make them uneconomic, we are not going to do it and make a loss", said Geoff Mackey, director of communications and sustainability at BASF in Britain.

Nothing of this, however, seems important enough for the British legacy media, even though plant closures are being reported. Schools, more than hospitals, are today's media fare. Brexit has to take its turn, while "inveterate liar" Johnson can blame everything on Covid.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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