Professor Chris Grey on how the current travel chaos and the impending decision on import controls show how Brexit impacts fragile complex systems and how the Brexiter denial of complex reality doesn’t make it disappear.
First published: April 2022.
A few weeks ago, when it was revealed that the government does not keep records on delays and lorry queues at Dover, I remarked in passing that it was like babies playing peek-a-boo. Not realising that things exist even when they can’t see them, they get immense amusement from the sudden appearance of that which had previously been hidden from view. That’s understandably great fun for people in the very early stages of cognitive development, but few would think it a satisfactory basis for public policy. Yet in many ways, it is almost a defining characteristic of Brexit, which from the outset has relied upon keeping the complex realities of Brexit out of sight, as if under the impression that they thereby cease to exist.
That said, unlike peek-a-boo, when Brexit realities come unavoidably into view they are hardly a source of amusement. So it is with the massive queues and disruptions at Dover last weekend and throughout the week, and at several airports, as people try to take Easter holidays. Of course, some of this is nothing to do with Brexit. Much of it, especially at airports, is to do with Covid causing staff shortages – although the government’s current Covid policy could also be characterised as one of imagining the problem doesn’t exist if you don’t look at it.
However, a contributory factor to staff shortages is the end of freedom of movement of people. That is having effects across the service sector, in particular, and airlines aren’t exempt. They also face additional problems in terms of the end of mutual recognition of qualifications of pilots and maintenance engineers. Meanwhile, holidaymakers arriving at popular destinations, such as Spain, face longer passport queues which are certainly because of Brexit. Lurking beyond these immediate difficulties lies a swathe of regulatory issues which were masked by the pandemic but are now beginning to emerge. These, and many other things, such as projected changes to aviation consumer policy, will continue to play out in the months and years to come.
So far as Dover is concerned, throughout the week Brexiters like David Frost (in an article so feeble that this bogus point was actually the best he made) have predictably been suggesting the problems are all due to the lack of P&O ferries in service. That’s clearly a big factor, but in itself it is partly related to Brexit. The decision to sack staff was partly because of the negative impact of Brexit on cross-channel trade, and the poor quality of the replacement crews then had knock-on effects on operations. In any case what is crucial is that ever since the end of the transition period there has been an increase in jams of freight lorries which is directly attributable to the new checks required by Brexit. These have become the new normal for Dover (and, to an extent, other ferry ports), with ripple effects causing chaos across Kent.
It is the addition of extra pressure to this already high base which has led to the current situation. That pressure includes the P&O issue, the large volumes of holiday passenger traffic, and the current problems with the IT system for the customs checks, themselves a result of Brexit.
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Complex systems are vulnerable to small changes
Partly because space is so restricted at the Port of Dover, it takes an average of three minutes more for a vehicle to clear the border than it did before Brexit. It sounds like nothing, but the margins are very tight. A video from the Financial Times (the context is out of date, but it is a good illustration of the point) shows graphically how adding two minutes at the border yields a 17-mile queue back to Ashford, whilst an extra eight minutes takes it right back to the Dartford Crossing. Even with the mitigations that have been created since that film was made, such as lorry parks, it’s easy to see how the slightest extra delay at the border can have a huge effect upstream.
Thinking of it in these terms is also useful for understanding the effects of Brexit changes more generally. These effects can be extremely large even if the change in question is quite small. This also means that, even where an event has many causes, and even if Brexit is one of the smaller of them, when systems are already running to very tight schedules, or at close to full capacity, that small extra part that is attributable to Brexit can tip those systems over their breaking point.
In this sense, attempts by Brexiters to either pretend that Brexit effects don’t exist, or that they are very minor compared with other factors, are an exercise in reality-avoidance. Just as I’ve repeatedly argued on this column that the overall economic effect of Brexit is like a slow puncture, so, in relation to all sorts of mundane activities, it acts as an extra burden. That extra burden can make what used to be easy difficult (taking a pet on holiday to the EU, say), or what used to be difficult close to impossible (small-scale exporting of goods to the EU, say). So our lives get more curtailed, and poorer in both economic and non-economic ways.
The problem of import controls
It's undoubtedly the spectre of border queues and damage to trade which accounts for reports that the government is considering further delaying, or even abandoning, the planned introduction of full Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) import controls on goods from the EU. As discussed last week, this is an aspect of the Brexit government’s ‘admission-yet-denial’ of Brexit damage. So whilst Brexiters will not publicly admit that, for example, the current travel chaos is in any way due to Brexit, they do periodically, at some level, realise that ignoring the growing problems of Brexit does not make them go away.
The particular difficulties of import controls are, first, that whenever they get introduced they will mean extra costs, estimated at £1 billion a year, meaning that products are liable to become more expensive, which is a particular problem given the cost-of-living crisis, and/or to be less widely available, leading to shortages in shops. They also mean more checks, which causes more delays, and this is compounded by the fact that because of the rushed – effectively, non-existent – transition period, which was the UK’s choice, Border Control Posts and other necessary facilities aren’t yet ready.
There is also the familiar Brexit-related problem of staff shortages, which a Select Committee report just last week found to be acute across the farming and food sectors. This is especially so in the veterinary profession, crucial to SPS checks, which has long been heavily reliant upon EU staff. The result of Brexit has been to reduce the number of new EU-trained registrants by two-thirds, creating a “workforce crisis” according to the British Veterinary Association (BVA). In abattoirs, an astonishing 90% of the vets who were in charge of official controls before Brexit were from (the rest of) the EU. The government has been warned about this since at least 2017, but, as with so many other warnings about Brexit, the approach has been to act as if by ignoring or dismissing problems they will cease to exist. But now – peek-a-boo! – they are in plain sight.
Why import controls can’t just be wished away
It might perhaps be thought that a delay, or even permanent non-implementation, doesn’t really matter. Isn’t it, even, a welcome sign of realism? The difficulty, though, is that if import controls are not introduced that only serves to ignore another reality which will not go away, namely the problems which import controls exist to avoid. As regards the next tranche of SPS controls due to be introduced on 1 July this means risks to animal health and food safety. If, yet again, the decision is to avoid facing up to the problem of introducing these controls then, in due course, the problem of not having them will itself come into plain sight. This could take the form of outbreaks of animal diseases that will damage the livelihoods of farmers and others (recall the widespread suffering caused by the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak) or infected food leading to human diseases and, potentially, deaths.
It might also be thought that there is no more reason why this should happen than it did before Brexit. There were no import controls then, and it is the same goods or livestock being imported to the same standards, so why should it cause any new problems now? It’s a legitimate question in itself, although in some cases, at least, it’s just a version of the familiar Brexiter fallacy that, somehow, nothing really has to change as a result of leaving – or, if it does, it’s only because of the EU punitively imposing third country controls. Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg apparently thinks, need not do the same (in the link he’s talking about fish, but the same applies more generally). They can introduce their ‘protectionist’ controls and ‘red tape’ if they want but we won’t, seems to be his thinking.
It’s also a version of the narrower, but equally fallacious, Brexiter idea that it’s possible to be both out of those parts of single market they don’t like and yet retain those parts – like having no import controls – that they want. That in turn is an aspect of the perennial failure of Brexiters to understand that being outside the single market (and customs union) by definition entails the re-introduction of borders.
As usual, to understand what’s at stake it’s necessary first to cut through all the Brexiter confusion and then to engage with the genuine complexity of what is at stake. Included in the former is precisely Rees-Mogg’s rather surprising idea, given Brexiters’ breathless enthusiasm for sovereignty, that Britain could effectively free-ride on EU enforcement of standards to protect British farmers and consumers. But it’s not just surprising, it’s also flawed: the EU ensures that goods offered for sale in its market meet its standards, but places no obligations on EU companies to meet those standards when selling goods in external markets such as Great Britain (GB)*. EU companies might send goods to GB that do not meet EU standards with no ill-intent, or do so with the intention of off-loading sub-standard products in the knowledge that Britain had no border controls. Whatever the reason, it is for the receiving market to protect itself, not the EU.
Moreover, it is a confusion to refer, as Rees-Mogg does, to such protection as being ‘protectionist’ in the economic sense. Although they may have the effect of protecting EU producers from competition and so be, as Rees-Mogg suggests, non-tariff barriers to trade, in the case of SPS controls their primary purpose is to protect the public from various kinds of health dangers. It is the loss of these protections that is risked by not having full import controls.
The complexity of the single market ‘eco-system’
Beyond that, the idea of just carrying on without controls, as before Brexit, ignores the loss of participation in the complex structure or ‘eco-system’ that makes the single market work as such. This eco-system includes the EU Animal Disease Information System (ADIS) which operates a highly sophisticated 24/7 notification and monitoring system which tracks and reports outbreaks and spreads of animal diseases, assisting rapid response and containment. Amongst other components are the Trade Control Expert System (TRACES), which is concerned with the entire agri-food chain, contributing to ensuring that food is safe for consumption, and the European Foods Standards Agency (EFSA) which communicates scientific risk assessments relating to the food chain.
Since Brexit, the UK has ceased to be a member of all these bodies but has developed its own Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System (IPAFFS) and has also expanded the role of the pre-existing Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA). However, so far as I can understand, there was no agreement for full and reciprocal data sharing in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, so what sharing of information there is between UK and EU systems is unsystematic (e.g. UK representatives attending some meetings of EU bodies but without any official status) and less rapid than before Brexit. Rapid and reliable information is a key issue in this context, as even a few hours can make all the difference to containing a disease outbreak. As with the lorry queues, a small extra delay or friction in one part of a complex system can create major problems elsewhere.
I don’t pretend to have any expertise in the details of these systems or exactly how they work. But it is clear just from the sources I consulted to write this, some of which I’ve linked to, that what are now national systems cannot fully replicate membership of EU transnational systems. Yet major parts of trade and supply chains continue to operate across the GB-EU border. So to argue that there’s no more risk than before Brexit is fallacious. Certainly, the BVA's Senior Vice-President James Russell, who presumably does know exactly how these systems work, is unequivocal that lack of access to EU databases and systems increases risks and makes it more important to have the border checks in place that would mitigate these risks.
This sounds very familiar, and all the more plausible because it is the same observation that has been made by security experts. In that area, too, whilst there is still some degree of UK-EU cooperation, including some data-sharing, the loss of full access to all EU databases makes things slower and more clunky than before. As with food security, this means crimes undetected or unpunished or, even lives lost. Ultimately, all of this roots back to the ideological refusal of the UK when it negotiated the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to participate in most data-sharing activities that have the ECJ as their ultimate legal authority, on the basis of ‘sovereignty’.
The irony of not ‘taking back control’
Thus simply not introducing import controls carries the increased risk that there will be problems, which might be minor or might create major scandals or crises. The longer that situation lasts, the greater the risk of such problems. Just ignoring them doesn’t make them cease to exist. Sooner or later – peek-a-boo! – they will jump into view.
It would also mean that those UK (and EU) companies which have prepared for import controls will have wasted their money, certainly if non-introduction becomes permanent. Indeed it bears saying that it is extraordinary that, less than three months before controls are meant to be introduced, businesses still don’t have any certainty not just about whether they will be but about the details of how they will operate. And, of course, if they aren’t introduced it will mean that it is much easier for EU firms to export to GB than for GB firms to export to the EU, a strange situation for Brexit ‘patriots’ to have created.
Nor does the strangeness stop there. It is an article of faith amongst Brexiters that a major benefit of their project is to set different regulatory standards from the EU, and as regards animal welfare specifically this has already begun to happen. It’s even, arguably, an area where GB standards will be higher than those of the EU, and certainly the government claims so. What an irony, then, if having created its independent regulations the government doesn’t enforce them on EU imports. And what a bitter irony for British farmers, especially, if it means being undercut by non-compliant imports from the ‘protectionist’ EU.
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Seeing the totality of Brexit’s failure
It’s possible to think of this peek-a-boo Brexit in different ways. In one way, as I’ve suggested, it’s about the Brexiters’ unwillingness or inability to acknowledge complex realities rather as, apparently, the reason that babies like peek-a-boo is because they haven’t yet got the cognitive ability to understand ‘object permanence’. In the Brexit metaphor, though, each time reality re-appears Brexiters react with horror rather than gurgle with pleasure, and cover their faces to avoid seeing it. I suppose it could be thought of as a version of confirmation bias, which many psychologists think itself has a cognitive dimension.
Be that as it may, the wider political issue is whether the public in general – whether they voted leave or remain – knit together the various appearances of Brexit damage into a picture of Brexit failure. There are several reasons why that may not happen. One is how coy media reporting is about Brexit damage. For example, so far as I know, no major news network has linked the recent travel chaos to Brexit in any way at all. Similarly, Labour’s continuing reticence about Brexit must be a factor.
Secondly, it’s quite easy for people to see the various manifestations of Brexit damage in isolation, rather than as having a common cause. It’s also the case that, because the damage of Brexit is unfolding over time, it's hard to have a sense of its full scope. Related to that is the issue of personal experience. Many of the damages only really hit home for those directly affected, and most people will personally experience only a small sub-set. So it’s very difficult for most of us to discern the ‘object permanence’ which is the totality of Brexit’s failure.
Certainly, the latest polling evidence suggests this is so, in that overall assessments of whether Brexit has had a positive impact (28%), a negative impact (45%) or made no difference (22%) have stayed fairly stable, rather than showing a shift to judging it negatively as the negative effects have increasingly emerged. On the other hand, Brexit was meant to be not just a policy, but an entire re-set of national strategy which would have indubitably positive results. So for so few to see a positive impact well over a year since the end of the transition period is, in and of itself, a remarkable indictment of its folly.
(*) Here and elsewhere I refer to Great Britain when appropriate because, as most readers will know, Northern Ireland remains effectively inside the European single market for goods, including livestock. However, it’s not always clear when to use UK and when to use GB – e.g. later I will refer to the Food Standards Agency as a UK body because it plays some role in Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales (but Scotland has a separate agency, Foods Standards Scotland). I’ve attempted to be accurate but concise, and hope what I have done does not cause any offence.
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- Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 14 April 2022, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 14 April 2022. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)