The story on the front page of The Sunday Times on 3 June 2018 pulled no punches. Headlined “Revealed: plans for Doomsday Brexit”, it reported on leaked government papers planning for a “no deal” Brexit scenario. They warned that the port of Dover could collapse on day one of exiting the EU, with major food shortages within a few days and medicines shortages within two weeks.
It seems barely comprehensible that a democratically elected government would risk the well-being of its people in this way. Yet, the government seems in total denial. Collectively, ministers seem gripped by an unbelievable degree of optimism bias making Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss look like an incurable pessimist.
The Department for Exiting the EU described the news as “completely false”, a claim that, on past experience, was greeted with scepticism. When one of us wrote of the threat to the supply of medical isotopes from Brexit, the Department also rubbished our claims, presenting situation as under control. A subsequent Freedom of Information request confirmed that it held no papers and had conducted no meetings whatsoever on the topic.
Returning to The Sunday Times story, the journalist who wrote the story has reported that a minister in the Department had described those who leaked the documents as “spineless cowardly quislings”.
Crucially, The Sunday Times story is entirely consistent with everything else we know about Brexit. The British cabinet is still unable to agree what it wants in terms of future customs arrangements. Even if it could reach agreement, it is simply impossible to put anything other than crisis responses in place. For example, we now know that the Department of Transport is planning to turn large swathes of motorway in Kent into lorry parks.
Other governments, such as the Dutch and Irish, are vastly better prepared, despite not knowing what the British actually want. The Dutch government prepared an online tool to assist its companies to examine how Brexit might impact them. In contrast, the British have concealed any plans that they might have behind a curtain of secrecy. Concerns that they are simply hiding incompetence seemed confirmed when ministers were forced to release the “sectoral analyses“, deemed so sensitive that MPs could only read them in locked rooms. When they eventually reached the public domain we saw that they contained such remarkable insights as how fishing was concentrated in coastal towns and banks were in centres of population. Unsurprisingly, other European governments have now put many of their preparations on hold.
We identified five major threats to the food supply. The first, highlighted in the leaked papers, is to imported food. The United Kingdom is far from self-sufficient in its food reduction. While the threat to imports from the rest of the European Union is obvious, what is less appreciated is that food from the rest of the world only reaches the United Kingdom because of complex trading arrangements that depend on membership of the EU. These include hundreds of trade agreements, customs clearance infrastructure in Rotterdam, and food safety inspectors from the European Food Safety Authority, active in 130 countries.
The second threat is to domestic food production, much of which depends on the labours of seasonal agricultural workers, overwhelmingly coming from the rest of the EU. Even though the United Kingdom has not yet left the EU, producers are already facing a crisis, due to a combination of the low value of the pound, meaning those workers are taking less money home, and the “hostile environment” created by the Prime Minister that, whether intentional or not, makes them feel extremely unwelcome.
The third threat Brexit presents is to food prices. Brexit supporters who claim the United Kingdom could trade easily under World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, have been rather more silent since President Trump provided a case study on just how difficult this would be; by launching a trade war. The reality will be extremely complex. Either the United Kingdom will remove all tariffs, devastating its domestic agricultural industry, or it will impose external tariffs that increase food prices greatly. Here, it is necessary to remember that the frequent claim by Brexit supporters that the EU imposes high tariffs on products from developing countries is not true. Whatever happens, resorting to WTO terms would be catastrophic.
Logistics is the fourth threat to the food supply. This is also touched on in the leaked government papers. The British retail market is dependent on a complex network of “just-in-time” deliveries, mainly on lorries. Thousands of these lorries cross the channel or the Irish border every day. Yet, following Brexit, it is likely that only a fraction of British lorries will have permits to operate in the rest of the EU.
The final threat is probably the best recognised. This is the Irish border. Food production in Ireland is integrated across the border. So far, the British government has been incapable of coming up with any feasible solution. Indeed, its proposals, such as the recent one for a buffer zone, have become progressively more ludicrous. The problems are enormous, not least the threat from large-scale organised smuggling, leading the Gardai, or Irish police, to call for reissuing of the automatic weapons that were necessary during The Troubles.
The optimistic scenario is that, faced with recognition of the scale of the problems, the British government will seek to save face by leaving the EU, on paper, but continuing to behave as if it was an EU member for what it might call an “implementation period” but which will be, in effect, an indefinite state of limbo, as its economy slowly declines and its influence weakens. Eventually, there will be sufficient groundswell of opinion to rejoin the EU. The pessimistic one is that, perhaps by accident, the United Kingdom does crash out. In that case, as our analysis, and seemingly, the government’s own, shows, we can expect a severe humanitarian crisis, with widespread food shortages being one of the first manifestations.
Featured image credit: Shopping Cart by Michael Gaida. Public domain via Pixabay.