2021-09-28 22:55:56 A Brexit-Weary Britain Finds Itself in a New Crisis With Brexit Overtones
A Brexit-Weary Britain Finds Itself in a New Crisis With Brexit Overtones
LONDON: Few things are more likely to make Downing Street’s teeth clench than the tentative winner of an inconclusive German election declaring that Brexit is the reason Britons are queuing at gas stations like it’s 1974.
However, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Olaf Scholz, told reporters on Monday that the European Union’s freedom of movement would have alleviated the shortage of truck drivers in Britain, which is preventing oil companies from supplying gas stations across the country.
When asked about the British crisis, Mr. Scholz said, “We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union.” “Now they’ve decided to do something different, and I’m hoping they’ll be able to deal with the consequences.”
Mr. Scholz’s criticism may also seem old hat to the general public. Brexit is no longer being debated in the United Kingdom. The issue has exhausted nearly everyone, and the country, like the rest of the world, has been consumed by the pandemic.
However, the coronavirus, as well as the months-long economic shutdown it caused, masked the ways in which Brexit has disrupted commerce. Last weekend, gas stations across the country began to run out of gasoline, causing panic and serpentine lines of motorists looking for a fill-up.
While it would be incorrect to blame a crisis with global ramifications solely on Brexit, there are unmistakable Brexit-specific causes: of the estimated shortfall of 100,000 truck drivers, approximately 20,000 are non-British drivers who left the country during the pandemic and have not returned, in part due to more stringent post-Brexit visa requirements to work in the country, which went into effect after Brexit.
Mr. Johnson acknowledged this when he reversed course last weekend and offered 5,000 three-month visas to foreign drivers in an attempt to replenish the ranks (while also putting military drivers on standby to drive fuel trucks, which he has yet to do).
“You have business models that are based on your ability to hire workers from other countries,” said David Henig, a trade policy expert at the European Center for International Political Economy. “You’ve suddenly reduced your labor market to one-eighth of its previous size. Brexit has had an impact on business models that haven’t had time to adjust.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that supply disruptions could last until Christmas, but the most severe problems at gas stations began to ease on Tuesday. The government is hoping that now that nervous buyers have filled up their gas tanks, normal purchasing patterns will resume.
This is not the first trade disruption to hit the United Kingdom since it exited the European Union in 2020. Because of new health regulations, British shellfish producers have lost entire markets in the European Union. Huge customs duties on shipments of gourmet coffee from Italy have surprised British consumers.
It is, however, the first disruption since life returned to a semblance of normalcy after 18 months of pandemic-forced restrictions. Schools are open; employees are commuting to work; and sports stadiums are crowded on weekends. In that sense, it is the first post-Brexit crisis that has not been obscured by the coronavirus’s effects.
It is also geographically restricted. Northern Ireland, which shares an open border with the Irish Republic (a European Union member), is not experiencing panic buying. Northern Ireland, likewise, was unaffected by the recent carbon dioxide supply shortage because its soda bottling plants had access to shipments from continental Europe.
Despite this, Brexit has received remarkably little attention in the public debate. Part of this is due to a pandemic hangover. Part of the reason for this is that other countries, ranging from Germany to the United States, are also dealing with supply-chain disruptions, labor shortages, and rising oil and gas prices.
However, it also reflects the stalemate of the debate over Britain’s exit from the European Union. After four and a half years of squabbling, even Brexit’s most ardent opponents are unwilling to rehash the 2016 referendum. And the Brexiteers are always looking for other people to blame for bad news.
“Brexit supporters will always believe that Brexit was correct, but it is the perfidious politicians who have messed things up,” said Tony Travers, a political science professor at the London School of Economics. “They’ve also been fortunate in that they can blame everything on the pandemic.”
Pro-government newspapers admit that Brexit has contributed to the labor shortage. They do, however, place a greater emphasis on the government’s need to demonstrate competence in dealing with the crisis than on the structural obstacles imposed by Britain’s new status. The Times of London warned Mr. Johnson in an editorial on Tuesday that the crisis could undermine trust in his government.
According to The New York Times, “there is nothing more visceral than the fear of not being able to obtain the necessities of life.” “What the public will see is a government in disarray. And that is especially damaging for a government elected on the promise of regaining control.”
Mr. Johnson sees the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair as a troubling precedent. Over the course of two weeks in 2000, it saw its commanding lead in public opinion polls erode when truck drivers blockaded refineries in protest of rising oil prices, triggering a fuel supply crisis similar to the one that exists today.
Mr. Johnson attempted to calm nerves in a television interview on Tuesday, saying that labor shortages were a global issue and making no mention of Brexit.
“I would just urge everyone to go about their business as usual and fill up as usual when you really need it,” he said.
Following the successful rollout of coronavirus vaccines in the United Kingdom earlier this year, public support for Brexit increased slightly in polls. Some attributed the government’s ability to secure vaccines and obtain quick approval to its independence from Brussels bureaucracy.
Pro-Brexit politicians used a similar justification to justify Mr. Johnson’s visa reversal. Initially, the government opposed the idea, claiming that increased competition for labor would raise wages for British drivers. Brexit, according to these sources, has improved Britain’s ability to welcome foreigners on its own terms.
“The ability to issue more visas if and when our economy requires them is precisely what ‘regaining control’ was all about. We should, of course, do it!” In a Twitter post, Liam Fox, a Conservative member of Parliament who served as trade secretary under Prime Minister Theresa May, said.
That assumes the foreigners are willing to accept the government’s terms, which in the case of truckers’ visas include a three-month limit, which may deter many potential drivers.
The fuel crisis should provide an excellent opportunity for the Labour Party, which is holding its annual conference this week in the seaside resort of Brighton, to highlight the government’s failings. Nonetheless, with a few exceptions, the party’s leaders have been unable to find their voices. It’s reminiscent of previous debates, in which the party’s deep divisions over Brexit hampered its ability to confront the government.
“I’ve been astounded by Labour’s reluctance to pursue them,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London. “You can make a reference to Brexit without actually saying it. You could blame it on the Tories’ bad trade deal.