Perhaps the journalist for Bournemouth Echo had guessed that Jacob Rees-Mogg was about to be handed the ‘exciting’ challenge of proving the advantages of Brexit. None seem to be immediately discernible. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released a report on 9 February, which revealed that “the only detectable impact so far is increased costs, paperwork and border delays,” according to Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC. Whatever other reasons lay behind the request, the journalist contacted the pro-EU group Dorset for Europe to say that she was preparing an article about Brexit to mark two years from the date on which Britain officially left the European Union (EU). Would we like to submit a statement? Well, of course!
Brexit is an historic mistake
Dorset for Europe was established in 2016, drawing its membership from those who believed that Brexit was an historic mistake. In this regard, our view remains unchanged. We also feel that the Government chose to implement the most extreme, divisive and damaging approach to exiting the European Union possible, and we are all paying the cost in a multitude of ways. We focused on three of our most important concerns, with quotes from a few members that we managed to contact within the short time period.
Two reports (from Birmingham University and UK in a Changing Europe) in the last couple of weeks have detailed the harm that Brexit has caused to the national economy: a figure of £870 per year, per household, was cited – and that was just up to 2019. If we all had that amount of money in our bank accounts, we would be less concerned about the current cost of living crisis! Instead, it’s being racked up as suppliers pass new customs and supply chain costs on to their customers. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has calculated that Brexit will continue to reduce our GDP by four per cent – double the two per cent hit from the Covid pandemic.
Local businesses have told us about how they have fared – for example:
Justin Smith, Director, Orbital Ltd
“I lost around £150k thanks to Brexit, down to market confidence. It was like the triple-glazed windows were pulled shut. The noise and activity just stopped. Once clients saw that nothing was going to happen imminently, things began to pick up very slowly and then we had the disaster of Covid. Brexit means that I can no longer travel and work as a photographer in Europe – ongoing, this has lost me around £30k per year. Not significant in the grand scheme of things but a really enjoyable part of my commercial life was taken from me.”
Gordon Sherren, Director, Kitchen Ventilation Systems Ltd
“My business (commercial ventilation) is suffering from the effects of customs checks. Materials that would otherwise flow freely are held up in ports, sometimes for weeks, directly impacting the ability of our business to function efficiently. European manufacturers favour mainland EU customers over the UK for obvious reasons of increased paperwork and logistics cost, let alone being able to sell to customers in their own currency. My MP, Sir Christopher Chope is blasé and/or typically completely unresponsive to my concerns.”
Many people commented on intermittent shortages on supermarket shelves and noticing that fresh food does not keep as long – presumably because of holdups in ports and longer journey times. The government sometimes suggests that issues such as HGV driver shortages and supply chain issues are international problems or down to Covid. This is true to some extent but, because so many of our members have family or friends across Europe, we know that these problems are not affecting consumers across the EU to anything like the extent they are in this country. Huge queues at ports are continuing to delay imports and exports, increasing costs and leading to shortages, and they look set to get worse. Natalie Elphicke, MP for Dover, remains determined to blame this on Brussels, not Brexit. So, no likelihood of an early solution then.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) – a sector that brought around £140m to the BCP area – ground to a halt when Covid hit. Five local language schools have closed for good. Unfortunately, as the economy re-opens, Brexit has significantly hampered any potential ‘bounce-back’. Many students used to travel to the UK for several weeks: they wouldn’t need visas, but now they do need passports. It is far less common for European youngsters to have passports than for their British counterparts, so other countries within the EU have a competitive advantage now. We do not have a monopoly on teaching English and other countries have gained at our expense.
Cultural exchange was a large part of the language school model and many local people enjoyed having European students to stay for a few weeks, not only for the interest and experience, but also for the opportunity to earn some additional cash. Language schools were always very varied in the way they operated, and some have adapted well, but where exchange visits and travel were built in to the offering, loss of EU citizenship and freedom of movement have proved problematic.
“It (Brexit) killed my ability to travel freely between Spain and the UK, so I was no longer able to offer tailored talks and English language materials to schools and residential courses here for individuals. My (TEFL) business has closed down. Now Ireland and Malta have benefitted from much of the English language business the UK used to enjoy.”
We know that both arts and sciences have been adversely affected by Brexit – both in terms of direct finance (e.g., the EU Horizon scheme) and by creating barriers to travel and collaboration across the European continent. Overall, there is a marked sense of loss because leaving the EU deprived us of our European citizenship and many added benefits, like freedom of movement (for leisure, business or as a retirement option) and the Erasmus Plus scheme for university students. The replacement (Turing) scheme is still developing. It appears more costly to individuals as it does not cover university fees, nor is funding for staff or school students included. As noted above, language schools and student exchange schemes have a broad cultural impact, as well as feeding into the economy.
Things that were once simple, like sending a Christmas gift to a friend or family member in Europe, or planning a holiday, have become much more expensive and complicated. In one example, efforts to purchase a DVD gift from ÖRF, the Austrian public broadcaster, were foiled: because of the extra costs and red tape incurred since Brexit, they’ve stopped supplying the UK. Very many small exporters have voluntarily stopped the EU-UK and UK-EU side of their business, reducing choice and variety for consumers as well as reducing revenue.
Some of the issues are tangible, like new customs charges or loss of previous EU benefits, such as the pet passport, reciprocal health cover (meaning cheaper travel insurance) and capped mobile phone charges. Other things are harder to quantify but still very real in creating a loss of identity, missed cultural opportunities and reduction in the shared values, vibrancy and moral purpose that came with belonging to the EU.
“I miss the chance to be able to talk to people who, although very similar, have a slightly different take on life, actions etc. I miss being able to talk about ideas to solve shared problems. I miss being able to learn to look at life slightly differently. Call me a softy, but Brexit is like losing a friend – one you may not always agree with, but with whom I have so many common bonds! I feel my life is less rich, as well as my wallet”
Travel is not just for leisure. It also offers some exciting employment opportunities, especially for the young, but a number of these options have been curtailed as well. Harmonisation of professional qualifications across the EU meant that students trained in anything from health care to engineering to flying a plane could work across the 31 countries (including EFTA and EEA). Employers would know the quality of applicants’ training was safe and equivalent to that in their own country and employees could apply to work wherever they fancied: an EU ‘ticket’ is a mark of quality and valued even beyond Europe. Training schools or universities needed to ensure their curricula matched the EU requirements, of course.
Some industries, like aviation, have international travel as a necessary part of the job. Bournemouth Airport might provide an example: students training for the aviation industry used to come to the UK from all over the world, knowing they could gain a qualification recognised by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) whilst being immersed in the language (English) used in the industry worldwide. To stay competitive since Brexit, UK training organisations have now been forced to gain dual approvals both from the UK Civil Aviation Authority and EASA in Cologne. Students invest upwards of £100,000 to achieve a pilot’s licence, but without an EU passport newly-qualified British flyers struggle to find employment in the European aviation market, as no amount of training can restore their lost freedom of movement.
Divisive and dangerous
It is nearly six years since a small majority voted to leave the European Union, although there was no agreement about what ‘leaving’ actually meant. As a consequence, there was no majority for any particular form of Brexit, and the divisions between advocates of different types of deal added to the conflicts between those wanting to leave or to remain. It is worth noting that nobody under the age of 24 years (now) was eligible to vote in 2016 and large numbers of people (like EU citizens resident in Britain, or Brits who had lived abroad for more than 15 years) were also excluded. Since the referendum, opinion polls have consistently shown a growing majority (currently 11 per cent) believing that Britain was wrong to vote to leave the European Union.
Despite the diminishing popularity of the referendum decision and divisions within its own ranks, the government has made no attempt to bring the country together or reduce the discord. Instead, it negotiated the most extreme form of Brexit, cutting almost all ties with the EU and without having developed contingency plans to cover the gaps and uncertainties created by Johnson’s supposed ‘oven-ready deal’. It was not ready at all, of course, as shown by the continuing negotiations (and political uncertainties) around the Northern Ireland (NI) protocol, and the need for extended ‘grace periods’ for import and export arrangements (we definitely haven’t ‘got Brexit done’ yet). Indeed, division and stoking of ‘culture wars’ seems to be part and parcel of Brexit: it is the means by which the government avoids answering any searching questions about difficulties, costs and responsibilities.
The government could have chosen to compromise and leave the EU whilst retaining membership of the single market. That would have solved the crisis in Northern Ireland by retaining freedom of movement and continued harmonisation with EU standards – better for business, too. The government preferred not to be answerable to the European Court of Justice for trading standards, so the conflict over the NI protocol continues. Had they negotiated a customs union, the many challenges around customs checks and supply chains could have been avoided – even though it might have been at the expense of the very few new trade deals that have been made independently (most simply rolled over the existing EU deals). But deals like the one made with Australia will bring very limited benefit to the UK (it will reduce prices on Australian goods by about £1 a year per household). It also risks reducing animal welfare and food safety, along with increased food miles, whereas during the referendum campaign, promises were made about maintaining or improving existing rights and protections. These are now under threat, as the new ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ is designed to make it easier to remove ‘legacy’ laws derived from the EU. In doing so, it will reduce the part played by parliament in scrutinising changes to any UK law, instead making use of powers dating back to the time of Henry VIII which increase the power of the ‘executive’.
Instead of compromise and pragmatism, which might have reduced division, we’re treated to a raft of nonsense about ‘freedom’ and ‘control’. The government hails as ‘Brexit benefits’ being able to put the crown back on a pint glass or have blue passports (neither of which were banned by EU membership) or talking up the vaccine rollout. It was untrue to claim the UK’s early start in rolling out Covid vaccinations was possible only because of Brexit. When the head of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced the vaccine’s approval, she was at pains to point out that this happened under existing EU law, since we were still in the transition period. Besides, the UK has vaccinated slightly fewer than the average for high-income countries.
Part and parcel of the divisiveness of Brexit is that the public are expected to ‘believe in it’, despite it being largely a mixture of fantasy and falsehood. In the meantime, disagreements, difficulties and rising discord continue and have spread into mainstream politics, leading to much of the current distrust and anger with the government.
The much-heralded benefits of Brexit have not materialised and are nowhere in sight. We are all far, far worse off in so many ways. In recent weeks Brexit has been kept out of the headlines by political shenanigans and misbehaviour in and around Number 10. How many people have wondered, since it seems the Prime Minister can lie and take people for fools about parties and breaking rules, what he really meant by the soundbites of ‘taking back control’ and ‘freedom’? Whose freedom and who is in control?
There is neither control nor freedom for individuals to prevent Brexit delivering them a lower standard of living, reduced standards for welfare, workers, the environment and more. Rees-Mogg has been charged with ‘drawing up an action plan’ and finding ‘1,000 regulations we want to get rid of’, according to the Financial Times (£). Ordinary people will have no real say in which protections or standards will be jettisoned, despite Rees-Mogg’s call to Sun readers to help him find regulations to be scrapped. Does he expect them to ask for the right to four weeks annual holiday to be removed, or for the bosses to be allowed once more to force them to work more than 48 hours a week? Nor will ordinary people be able to challenge new constraints to travel or doing business in Europe or a curtailed Parliamentary democracy. Those are the legacy of Brexit: less choice, more constraints, more costs: however it is dressed up, it was a complete con.