Sunday, 24 July 2022

How the queues at Dover show the corruption that pervades Brexit

In recent years, my pattern has been to post on this blog once a week. But occasionally, if an issue of particular importance comes up, I write an extra one, as today. I’m also doing so out of sheer frustration. The issue is that of the delays and queues at Dover and Folkestone. The frustration is at the speed with which patently nonsensical arguments about it have been spread, and the sheer bone-headed, brazen obtuseness with which they are clung to despite every effort to correct them. I know that there’s nothing new in this but, still, six years on, it has the capacity to depress and shock.

This isn’t, as the Express would have it, a matter of ‘remoaner gloating’. On the contrary, it is something like despair at the endless damage that Brexit is doing to our country, and the fact that there’s not even the remotest sign of any honesty or responsibility from the Brexiters who have created this situation.

Holiday queues

The damage of Brexit is probably at its most visible when holiday traffic builds up at ports, especially Dover and Folkestone, as happened this weekend. Apart from anything else, such events are disruptive enough to make the national news because of the scale of the misery caused. That has happened a couple of times since the end of the transition period, but this time it has led to a more extensive public debate about Brexit than the previous occasions.

One reason for that may be because the travel expert, Simon Calder, has been emphatic and unequivocal in saying, in a range of media interviews including on the BBC, that Brexit is the key factor. It is a diagnosis backed by the Chief Executive of Dover Port and most other experts. It is true that Tony Smith, the former head of the UK Border Force, wrote an article suggesting Brexit wasn’t to blame (£). But buried within it is a key sentence, acknowledging that post-Brexit checks do add small amounts of time to the processing of passengers.

And that is precisely the reason Brexit is so crucial. Now, passports have to be stamped, as they do for any third country national entering the EU’s Schengen area. This indeed adds only a small amount of time, perhaps as little as 30 seconds per car, perhaps as much as a minute, but that smallness is deceptive. In percentage terms, it is a big increase on the previous average of one minute, and at holiday periods adding even half a minute to the thousands of cars passing through the ports causes a backwards build up of traffic leading to many hours and miles of queues on the approach roads. This is especially true at Dover where volumes of both commercial and domestic traffic are high and infrastructure space is very limited.

Specious arguments

This isn’t a difficult concept to understand, but the backlash from Brexiters has been ferocious and immediate, taking the form of several specious arguments, or variations of the same arguments that sometimes contradict each other. These include the line taken by, for example, the influential presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer that such queues are not experienced when travelling to other, non-EU countries, where passport stamping is required. That’s specious partly because nowhere else are such large numbers of British travellers typically filtered through so tight a funnel.

A variant of this line, and, again, Julia Hartley-Brewer is a high-profile example, is that, pre-Brexit, British travellers still had to show passports because the UK was never in the Schengen area. That’s specious because in those days the passports didn’t have to be stamped (and often, in practice, were barely checked, if at all), which is what is adding the time. Yet another, contradictory, variant is that, since there are sometimes queues are other ports and airports around the world, this ‘proves’ that those in Dover are nothing to do with Brexit. This is specious – it hardly needs to be said, one would have thought – because to say that Brexit is a cause of some queues at some borders is not to say it is the cause of every queue at any border.

More commonly, and repeated by both would-be Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the blame is being put on lack of French officials on duty, so that not all the passport booths are open. That very likely contributes to the problem, but doesn’t negate that the extra post-Brexit checks make it worse, and that even with full staffing there would still be a problem. Adjuncts to the core ‘blame the French’ argument are that, pre-Brexit, there were examples of long queues associated with lack of French staffing. However, these cases were due to temporary factors such as strikes or increased terrorist threat levels. Brexit is a permanent addition of border friction. In any case, as with so many other Brexit issues, such as trade depression, it is specious to suggest that if Brexit isn’t the sole cause of a problem this ‘proves’ it isn’t one of the causes.

A more pernicious version of French-blaming, this time from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (£), admits that the cause of the delays is passport stamping but claims that France does not need to do this. Similar claims are widespread from pro-Brexit accounts on social media, suggesting that France is acting out of spite to Britain, perhaps even as a ‘punishment’ for Brexit. It’s untrue: it is a legal requirement to “systematically” stamp the passports of third country nationals entering and exiting the Schengen area. Complaints about this have a depressing similarity to those the government sometimes makes about the Northern Ireland Protocol, to the effect that it had never expected it to actually be enforced to the letter. As if Brexit were just some sort of game, or a symbolic act, rather than having concrete legal consequences.

Denial of reality

All this specious nonsense isn’t a matter of stupidity. The issues are so simple that everyone can understand them from daily experience. For example, everyone can understand that if there is a busy road junction, that gets especially congested at rush hour or when the weather is bad, it will get worse if the road is dug up. For that matter, anyone who has stood on a garden hose and seen that doing so reduces the flow of water is capable of understanding the basic principle of what’s happening at the ports. It seems that the only way of explaining the refusal to do so is a psychological investment in Brexit so deep that perceptions of reality are actually distorted.

At all events, this denial of reality has roots reaching deep into the Brexit process. During the referendum, on the specific question of queues at Dover, Brexiters swore – in lofty, authoritative tones – that they would not happen. Perhaps it was a lie, or perhaps they really did not understand what they were doing. Either way, it was part of a much wider lie or misunderstanding that they sold to leave voters, which was that Brexit was crucial for the nation and yet ‘nothing would really change’ and, certainly, that there would be no costs. In relation to Freedom of Movement, in particular, it was often claimed or implied that whilst this was ‘vital’ to protect the UK from ‘uncontrolled immigration’, the rights of British people to move freely to the EU would scarcely change, if at all.

It would be easier to accept Brexit if, either then or at least now, Brexiters would admit that much is changed and that the costs are high; if they were to say that they accept the costs as a price which is, in their view, justified by what they call sovereignty. But they did not say it then, as they knew to do so would lose the referendum, and they will not say so now for a variety of reasons – including fear of public opinion, false pride and, indeed, psychological investment. And they expect the rest of us to collude in this fantasy world on pain of being denounced as ‘remoaners’, ‘whiners’ or ‘traitors’.

One of the ironies of this refusal to accept reality is that it also means that the damage of Brexit is even higher than it needed to have been. In relation to Dover infrastructure, in December 2020 the government refused to pay to increase passport booth capacity. That is an example of the wider way in which the UK was under-prepared for the end of the transition period, because the government would not admit for far too long that much preparation would be needed.

Astonishingly, the first time a Cabinet Minister publicly admitted there would be extensive new border checks was when Michael Gove did so in February 2020, after the UK had actually left the EU. And by that time the narrative that any talk of such a need was just ‘Project Fear’ meant that many individuals and businesses simply didn’t believe or expect there to be any significant changes at all.

The Dover problems illustrate something else. At a general level it is that ‘taking back control’, especially of borders, is a two-edged business. Borders have two sides. At a more specific level, it puts a premium on co-operation with neighbours. To the extent that the Dover queues would be somewhat eased by more French passport staff – a cost to France – it would be helpful to have good relations with France. Instead, in addition to the provocations to it as an EU member over, especially, implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK government has gone out of its way to be antagonistic, for example over cross-channel migrant crossings and fishing rights. Now Liz Truss calls on France to fix the Dover queues. It’s not just stupid, it’s embarrassing. And it’s not just embarrassing, it’s inept.

The existential corruption of Brexit

I’ve written recently about the inability of the leadership campaign, and of the Tory Party generally, to be honest about Brexit, and this is just one more example. But it’s also an illustration of the weakness of the Labour position. For, having so definitely ruled out any return to the single market (and, in relation to commercial traffic, a customs union) it has no basis to criticise what is happening at the ports. Indeed, so far as I can tell, almost the only comment from Labour has come from its Chair, Anneliese Dodds, bemoaning the “chaos” and the government’s failure “to get a grip”. That is meaningless unless Labour is also willing to at least consider addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Without doing so, no government is going to ‘get a grip’ on it, including any future Labour government. Politics, at least the politics of the two main parties, is simply unable to speak of the problem, and so is doomed to fail to find a solution. It has choked on dishonesty.

That is the cause and consequence of something even worse. If all that were at stake were periodic holiday queues at Dover it would be annoying, but it would hardly matter. But it isn’t. If the queues were the only aspect of Brexit about which politics is dishonest it would be troubling, but it wouldn’t be disabling. But they aren’t. Precisely because these queues are the most visible effect of the damage of Brexit they are also a vivid reminder of all the lies, of all the false arguments, and all the false logic, and all the false claims of Brexit.

Most of all, the queues illustrate the existential corruption of Brexit. For there they are, the visible embodiment of what the Brexiters demanded and what they inflicted. Yet we’re not even told that they are a price worth paying for Brexit. No. We are expected to accept, or to collude in the acceptance, that they betoken nothing, that there is nothing to see here, that we should deny what is patently real and before our eyes.

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