Having hectored, cajoled and bullied its way through the uncivil negotiations around Brexit (“British exit”) and Trexit (“Transition exit”) it seems that the United Kingdom is now insistent on having its sovereignty cake and eating it too. How else to explain the complaints from UK politicians and commentators objecting to the European Union implementing checks on British goods entering its borders? A couple of weeks ago the right-wing press in London was gloating at the relative lack of interruption in ongoing trade with the Continent following the end of the transition period. Where, they sneered, are the kilometres-long tailbacks at the Channel seaports and the English retail stores filled with empty food shelves? Where, they guffawed, are the legions of international passengers stuck at airports or the army of businesses closing down as their supply chains disappeared?
Conveniently, of course, all this sniping ignored the dramatic fall in cross-border trade and demand caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and EU-wide lockdown restrictions, the British stockpiling of European goods that took place in the months running up to the December-January cut-off point, the traditional post-Christmas lull in transport seen every year, and the initial commitment by various EU member states to exercise a light-touch response to the new EU-UK trading regime. Those conditions are now beginning to change and the British chattering classes are beginning to howl, blaming “unfair” EU “bureaucracy”, “red tape” and “petty form filling” for “picking” on “English trucks” and drivers at the entry points into the European Union. Once again Greater England is showing its remarkable capacity for believing that it has the right to dictate the manner of its access to the territories of other nations while reserving its right to dictate the manner in which those other nations may gain access to its own territory. Which, at least, is historically consistent.
The political correspondent Sam McBride outlines some of the disastrous local effects of all this for the News Letter:
An 11-page report sent to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, which has been seen by the News Letter, presents the grim prospect of “a collapse of the NI supply chain” within five days if ministers fail to act urgently.
In the report sent to the Cabinet Office, the Road Haulage Association’s (RHA) chief executive Richard Burnett, warned that after just eight days of the Irish Sea border there are major difficulties in getting products into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
And this warning comes admit reports that customs officials on both sides of the Irish Sea have been effectively turning a blind eye to the movement of goods with partial or incorrect forms and documentation since January 1st. As Tony Connelly notes for RTÉ, this anomalous situation cannot be sustained.
It is early days, and there may be many Irish importers, EU exporters and UK distributors who will continue to operate as before in the hope that the authorities at ports take a pragmatic approach.
However, such an option is not sustainable long term. And because these complications will also apply to Northern Ireland, due to the Protocol, the fallout there will be laced with political toxins.
We are at only the very beginning of the new era in relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and it is likely that things are going to get very much worse before they get ever-so slightly better.