It was a perfect encapsulation of the gulf between Brexit dreams and the crushing reality: On Tuesday morning, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his proposed space project. Post-Brexit Britain, he said, would turn into “Galactic Britain.”
It was all a far cry from the post-Brexit future that voters were promised during the 2016 referendum on exiting the European Union. During the campaign, leading Leave advocate David Davis pledged, “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”
This became the core idea of the Brexit agenda: rejecting any notion of disadvantage while obsessing over perceived advantages. Brexit was never approached as a typical policy proposal, with weaknesses and strengths. It was treated instead as a crusade for patriotic meaning, in which support demonstrated national commitment. To be for Brexit was to be for Britain. To be against it was to be against Britain. Those pointing out potential problems in the Brexit project were, therefore, dismissed as traitors, “enemies of the people” or out-of-touch metropolitan elitists.
This led to a severe deterioration in the quality of British political debate. But it also did something that would prove much more devastating to those who wanted to deliver Brexit: It prevented them from seeing the obstacles heading their way. And now they are being buffeted by crisis after crisis — all of which could be foreseen, but none of which were prepared for. We are witnessing the failure of post-truth politics not on a moral level but on a practical one.
The problem started with the border. During the 2016 referendum, the Vote Leave campaign promised that post-Brexit Britain would enjoy “tariff-free trade with minimal bureaucracy” when trading with the European Union, its closest and largest market. This was enthusiastically affirmed by former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson, who said there would be “no need for new physical infrastructure at the border.”
In reality, this was impossible. Brexiters wanted to leave the E.U. customs union, which harmonizes tariffs, and the E.U. single market, which harmonizes regulations. These measures eradicate the requirements for bureaucratic checks on trade within the E.U. It therefore followed that those checks would be reimposed if Britain left the E.U. But even this basic logic was not allowed to interfere with the Brexit fantasy.
When the exit deal with the E.U. was wrapped up, Johnson set about selling it to the public. “After three and a half years of procrastination, we have a great new deal that is ready to go,” he wrote in the Conservatives’ 2019 campaign manifesto.
And then reality intervened. On Jan. 1, 2021, Britain’s first day outside the E.U., the border checks that Brexiters claimed did not exist spluttered into action.
Trucks carrying goods from Dover, Britain, to Calais, France, had to provide an import/export declaration and safety and security documentation, and satisfy the documentary, identity and physical checks required by the E.U.’s sanitary and phytosanitary regime on agricultural goods — none of which were required when Britain was part of the Common Market, and all of which obviously applied once it left.
Over the months that followed, truckers faced hours-long waits as they tried to clear the paperwork. Total British exports to the continent fell by 41 percent in January. Food exports were the worst affected, with meat down by 59 percent and fish and shellfish by 83 percent.
Many businesses would eventually incorporate Brexit delays and form-filling requirements into their day-to-day operations, although they would take on heavy new costs to do so. Industries where speed is of the essence were damaged permanently. Under the E.U.’s frictionless trade system, Scottish langoustines and scallops could arrive in French markets a little more than a day after they were harvested. Now health certificates and customs declarations add days to delivery times and hundreds of dollars of additional expenditure to each load.
Brexiters had promised that leaving the E.U. would allow Britain to “take back control.” But in fact, the checks are all one way. Under the strain of the new system, the United Kingdom has been forced to keep pushing back the date when it will apply import controls to goods coming from Europe. First it was shunted to April 2021, then delayed by six months, and then delayed again to January 2022. It’s quite possible they will never be imposed.
The most severe impact Brexit has had on the U.K. is through labor shortages. Tens of thousands of European workers who had lived in Britain under the E.U.’s free-movement rules left after the Brexit vote or during the coronavirus pandemic. They were tired of being treated as a problem, and anyway, once the pandemic broke out, they wanted to be near their families. But after Britain left the E.U., free movement came to an end.
Brexiters had claimed that this was a positive development: It would raise domestic wages and help domestic workers get jobs. But European employees were central to the functioning of the British economy. Without them, labor shortages hit across society — in shops, restaurants, abattoirs, food-processing centers and, crucially, the trucking industry.
Without European truck drivers, there was no one to get goods where they needed to be. Supermarket aisles appeared emptier. Over the past week, tankers haven’t been able to get enough fuel to gas stations, leading to the country’s severe gasoline crisis. Wherever you look, you see cars jammed in long lines at filling stations and signs stating that the outlets are out of fuel.
It’s a moment of acute national self-harm. Recent polling has found that just 18 percent of Brits think Brexit is going well, while 53 percent think it is going badly.
All of this was avoidable. Brexit could have been pursued in a cautious and pragmatic way that spotted potential issues and addressed them ahead of time. That did not happen. Instead, pointing out obstacles to its implementation was treated as proof of a lack of patriotic commitment.
But objective reality did not go away — it was simply ignored. And now it is delivering a body blow to the economy, from fish exports to fuel supplies.
Somewhere in Johnson’s head, where British space rockets dominate the galaxy, Brexit is a marvelous success. But down here on Earth, it is proving catastrophic.