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Brexit: Orwellian inversions

2020-02-11 07:57:15

The government intends to introduce import controls on EU goods at the border after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. So says Michael Gove, in an official statement, confirming our worst fears.

From the "frictionless" trade with EU Member States that we have enjoyed since the advent of the Single Market (and were promised would continue during the referendum campaign), we now revert to the full panoply of border checks on incoming goods, including veterinary inspections of animals and products of animal origin in as yet non-existent border control posts.

To make matters worse, the new IT system required to handle the volume of customs declarations will not be ready until 2025, requiring traders and shippers (those who manage to stay in business) to cope with a costly "make do and mend" approach.

In what looks like an enforced "jam tomorrow" scenario, government officials are claiming that, by 2025, Britain will have the "best, smartest and most efficient border in the world" - supposedly with new simplified systems in place. In the meantime industry has been told to prepare for significant friction to trade.

Despite this, Gove – in his role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – has declared that, as a result of this move, "we will be in a stronger position, not just to make sure that our economy succeeds outside the European Union but that we are in a position to take advantage of new trading relationships with the rest of the world".

It thus seems that we have taken a giant leap backwards to Orwell's 1984. In his land where the Ministry of Truth was devoted to the falsification of public records, the Ministry of Peace concerned itself with war, the Ministry of Love sanctioned torture and the Ministry of Plenty presided over starvation, he launched the concept of the Orwellian inversion where official pronouncements mean the exact opposite of what they said.

However, no one can really claim to be surprised. Ever since Theresa May's Lancaster House speech, when she committed us to dropping out of the Single Market, this was on the cards.

Since the position has been strengthened by Johnson, with his determination to break away from regulatory alignment with the EU and a timescale for trade negotiations which effectively rules out anything but the most basic of deals, this was the only possible outcome.

Had we sought to rejoin Efta and negotiate a new EEA deal, EU border checks could have been avoided, but this is not mentioned in the official statement – giving no clue that this is a self-inflicted wound.

Instead, we are told of other reasons for implementing import controls, the first of which is "to keep our borders safe and secure so we know who's coming in and how often, what they are bringing in, and why".

This hardly would seem to apply to trade coming through our ports, which leads us to the government's real reason. We must, says the statement, "ensure we treat all partners equally as we begin to negotiate our own trading arrangements with countries around the world".

The government here is alluding to the WTO's equal treatment rule, which – in the absence of a comprehensive trade deal with the EU – would require the UK to treat produce from EU Member States on the same basis as goods from the rest of the world.

The same goes for the collection of customs and excise duties, and VAT, which is cited as another reason for having border checks. But that would seem to confirm that there is little prospect of securing a comprehensive trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.

And while, for a time at least, the UK could have invoked the WTO waiver provisions to suspend border checks, there also seems to be a tit-for-tat element as it is acknowledged that "the EU has said it will enforce checks on our goods". Thus, "We will likewise enforce our own rules for goods entering the UK".

Apart from the official statement, the thrust of these provisions had been announced in person by Gove at a Cabinet Office event held in central London yesterday, entitled "Preparing Our Border for the Future Relationship", at which business representatives were present.

But, in what looks remarkably like the onset of Stockholm syndrome, we see "a welcome" for how Gove was "straightforward" in explaining what to expect from the government's approach.

"Frictionless trade has been kicked to the touchline", said Elizabeth de Jong, UK policy director of the Freight Transport Association, after meeting Gove. "This was a big dose of realism". Nevertheless, she did manage to concede that: "It's going to be really costly for business".

In what also could be considered an Orwellian omission, while The Times and most of the print media cover the story, the fanboy gazette has yet to break the bad news.

Instead, the Telegraph offers a report with the headline: "EU seeks power to suspend any deals it makes with Britain over Brexit" – part of its "toolbox" of punitive measure against the UK "after Brexit".

Tucked into this report, though, is one interesting nugget. The EU goal for the coming negotiations, we are told, is a "bare bones" agreement, with other sectoral arrangements "fleshed out later". This is rather along the lines of what we were suggesting last November. It is remarkable though that what was obvious then is only now being acknowledged.

All this must also put Northern Ireland on the spot. If the UK is to be consistent, it can hardly let goods pour across the land border from the Republic into the province, and thence to the mainland, without any checks. Equally, goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, potentially headed for the Republic must surely have some controls imposed.

There is also the question of whether arrangements might be affected by the general election although, with the formation of the new government some weeks away, the smart money is on it being too early to tell.

Logic might suggest that, if Sinn F้in is able to call the shots as a member of a coalition government, the UK will be in for a hard time. But then logic is not always the dominant factor in Irish (or any) politics.

Whatever the political outcome, the imposition of checks across the board can hardly leave Ireland unaffected and, if the UK doesn't take appropriate measures, the EU will doubtless come under pressure from its own Member States to take action. Irish relations with the UK, which might in any event be more fragile with the success of Sinn F้in, could become strained.

Important as this is, it nevertheless looks to be only one of many problems which are emerging. The current news agenda may be crowded, with the Royal soap opera, the coronavirus and storm Ciara, all vying for attention – to say nothing of developments on the HS2 saga – but Gove's admission, backed by an official government statement, bodes ill for the future.

Even if the government plays this down, insisting that Brexit is "done" and calling on journalists to avoid the use of the word, border checks will be a significant shock to our economy. Johnson's administration has just dumped an unexploded time bomb in our midst, and Orwell is not going to help when reality finally bites.