Johnson’s foreign quarrels can’t conceal the truth about Brexit

Fishing rows notwithstanding, much of Europe looks on at the UK’s plight with astonishment – and even, still, sympathy

At the recent celebration of the life and achievements of my friend and fellow Remainer John le Carré, I was asked by a leading academic whether I was absolutely certain that we could rejoin the European Union.

The answer is that I am not. But as the evidence of the damage of that foolish referendum decision accrues, it is becoming more and more certain that we should try. At the very least, we should be repairing fences and attempting to re-establish as close a relationship as possible – a cause championed by Labour’s impressive shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves.

Of course there is an obvious danger that an application would be given short shrift by Europeans, whose patience with, and sympathy for, the UK must be close to exhaustion – not least as a result of the bizarre and rather sinister behaviour of our so-called negotiator, Lord Frost. But the chances are that our fellow Europeans – we still share the same continent – would regard it as in their interest, as well as ours, that a grievous error should be remedied.

It may seem odd to be saying this in the midst of a fishing dispute with France, but this very dispute is a direct consequence of Brexit, and there are obvious concerns that the Johnson/Frost approach is to escalate things for short-term political advantage. This government just loves to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (Henry IV Part 2).

Europeans’ understanding of the hole which this country has dug for itself was illustrated recently by two comments, from a Brussels commissioner and a retired Danish footballer. Thierry Breton, the commissioner for the internal market, said: “Look at what is happening on the supermarket shelves. Look at what is happening at the petrol pumps. Look at what is happening with the shortage of nurses and doctors. Look at what is happening with the shortage of truck drivers. Look at what is happening in the construction sector.”

Brexit, says Breton, has been “a catastrophe” for the UK. And Peter Schmeichel – the former Manchester United player and father of Kasper, the Leicester goalkeeper – when asked his view of Brexit by a member of the audience during an interview that was meant to be about football, replied succinctly: “What on earth were you all thinking of?”

These are just some examples of friendly observations from people our prime minister occasionally calls “our European friends”. Closer to home, a reader wryly informs me that there is an area of Worcestershire where “they have no apple pickers, and, even if they had, there are no trucks to deliver them to the supermarket”.

The government tries to hide behind Covid and the fact that there are supply chain problems around the world. But they are nothing like the Brexit-magnified supply chain issues here. Funny how Germany, which admitted a million immigrants instead of repelling them, is not suffering the shortages of labour that we are.

During his budget speech, the unreconstructed Brexiter Chancellor Sunak was scraping the bottom of the global barrel when trying to find Brexit dividends. The freedom to negotiate trade deals? Sorry, the position the government finds itself in is that it has given up phenomenally productive trade deals enjoyed as an EU member and has been trawling around, cap in hand, looking for a handful of far worse deals, at great expense. Moreover, it has not escaped observers that moving the emphasis on trade away from the EU has a negative impact on the UK’s targets for reducing carbon emissions.

Again, one of the many benefits of EU legislation that we took for granted was its beneficent effect on the cleanliness of our rivers and beaches. We are now plumbing the depths, at a time when British water companies seem to be more in the news than ever for polluting the waters.

What Sunak was none too keen to emphasise last week was the Office for Budget Responsibility’s calculation that Brexit has produced a permanent hit of 4% to this country’s productivity, or GDP per capita. I could hardly believe it – or perhaps I could – when George Eustice, the environment secretary, dismissed this on the Today programme as “an old figure”. Sorry, Mr Eustice, but it is a figure that remains very much with us, and makes a nonsense of all the government’s claims that Brexit frees the economy to increase its productivity.

Moreover, 4% may be a conservative estimate. Other independent bodies, such as The UK in a Changing Europe, put the reduction at nearer 6%. However, we can rely on Private Eye to leaven the gloom. I just loved its recent headline: “Brexit not the fault of Brexit”.

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