Two weeks ago an altercation broke out at a petrol station in London and quickly escalated. One of the men involved pulled out a knife. The other hit him with his car. As the driver tried to retreat, the first man kicked his side mirror, leaving it hanging limply as the car backed into the street.
Fighting in a big city like London is not unusual, but the cause of this one was: The two men were fighting over access to petrol which was suddenly in short supply in many parts of the country. And it was by no means the only fight to break out at a gas station that week.
It was in Britain in October 2021, where fuel shortages led to long queues outside hundreds of petrol stations, leaving many customers impatient and even desperate.
Moreover, gasoline is only one of the many products in short supply. In recent weeks, McDonald’s has run out of milkshakes, while Nando’s, the peri-peri chicken chain, temporarily closed 10% of its restaurants, in part because it was unable to stock up on chicken. The UK government has warned of a Christmas turkey shortage. More immediately, there is a 70% shortage of fireworks supplies, just weeks before Guy Fawkes Night, an annual festival celebrated with big screens across the country.
This is an extraordinary situation for the world’s fifth largest economy. The government has tried to blame the shortages on the coronavirus pandemic – something, it has been at pains to point out, no one could have foreseen – resulting in a shortage of truckers that is plaguing countries across Europe.
The shortage of lorry drivers is real – Poland is short by around 123,000 drivers, France by 43,000 and Germany by up to 60,000, compared to an estimated shortfall of 100,000 drivers in the UK.
However, only the UK is suffering from acute shortages of consumer goods and the inevitable resulting rages.
Of course, the pandemic is not the only systemic shock the UK has experienced this year. It has also chosen to pursue an economic revolution by erecting trade barriers with the European Union, its closest and most important economic partner. Brexit, as this revolution is called, is an experiment in reverse liberalization unlike any other advanced economy. While the UK’s decision to conduct such an experiment is unprecedented, the consequences of Brexit were easily predictable. Indeed, they were predicted.
For decades before Brexit, the UK economy relied on an extensive network of highly efficient supply chains that criss-cross the EU. Backed by a vast pool of skilled European labour, from which thousands of truck drivers were recruited, these supply chains delivered everything from food and drink to chemicals, medicines and car components, all on a “just in time” inventory schedule that minimized waste. and cost, while keeping the shelves full, the factories running, and the country fueled and nurtured.
The consequences of Brexit were inevitable and expected, but the government’s failure to properly prepare for it was a choice.
This logistical miracle relied on a comprehensive set of rules and standards, complemented by information sharing between national regulatory authorities and an agreed redress framework, in other words, the Single Market and Customs Union of the EU. Within this ecosystem, the British economy has developed, while intertwining with those of its European neighbours. When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, it opted out of this ecosystem, sacrificing its place within these supply chains and an increasingly integrated European economy.
Since then, companies, logisticians, customs officers, specialists in international trade and community law have detailed the consequences of this decision at length. Simply put, they argued that Brexit would inevitably hurt the UK economy, for multiple reasons. The erection of trade barriers would make it harder for UK companies to do business in the EU. The re-establishment of customs controls would make it more difficult to replenish stocks with goods from the EU. And ending the free movement of people would make it harder to keep key sectors of the economy, including logistics, operational by recruiting EU workers.
To alleviate this situation, the UK business sector has called on the government to pursue a “soft” Brexit and allow ample time to adjust to the new reality that will result. This would have retained some of the integration between the UK and EU economies and would have helped to minimize the sudden disruption to trade that leaving the EU would cause. However, the British government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has chosen to pursue the toughest form of Brexit and to do so as quickly as possible. The results have now become clearly apparent on supermarket shelves and at gas pumps across the country.
The UK government’s response to this growing crisis has been to relax rules governing the working hours of lorry drivers and offer short-stay visas to EU drivers. Neither measure tackles the root of the problem. Moving goods to and from Britain is now taking longer, more expensive and more stressful than a year ago as the trade barriers that were the inevitable consequence of the Johnson government’s Brexit brought to a screeching halt free and frictionless movement of goods. enjoyed by the UK when it was a member of the EU. The way to solve the challenges facing the UK is to remove these trade barriers.
The reason the Johnson government won’t is because it was and continues to be driven by one goal: to deliver Brexit. The decision to leave the EU fundamentally changed the British political landscape. The Conservative Party, once the party of business, is now the party of Brexit. He was re-elected with an overwhelming majority under Johnson in 2019 to “get Brexit done”. Its MPs are unwavering not only in their support for Brexit, but also in their belief that it will inevitably be a success.
However, it was this unshakeable belief that led the government first to downplay the scale of the economic challenges that would inevitably result from Brexit, and then to rush the UK’s extraction from the European Union, leaving itself – and UK businesses – without the time to properly prepare for what the UK is currently experiencing. The consequences of Brexit were inevitable and expected, but the government’s failure to properly prepare for it was a choice.
As long as these true believers continue to occupy 10 Downing Street and the majority of seats in Parliament, the government will choose to ignore the role Brexit has played in weakening the UK economy, undermining UK businesses, smashing vital supply chains and exacerbating labor shortages. and creating the kind of conditions that result in violent exchanges at gas stations. To do otherwise, they would have to question their own belief in Brexit and recognize the flaws in what has become an ideology. It is not an option for them, for the simple reason that the Johnson government is a revolutionary government in which ideology trumps everything else, even the economy.
Sydney Nash is a former civil servant, UK-EU negotiator and adviser to the automotive industry on Brexit and international trade. He writes in a personal capacity and can be found on Twitter at @NashSGC.