D uring the more dramatic phases of the Brexit process, it was not unusual for some big development to occur just as I was finalizing my piece for this column. It happens less often now, but it did so last week, with two important announcements being made last Thursday, by which time I had largely written what became last week’s piece, on Gibraltar and Brexit (since this was about a possible deal which hasn’t yet happened, it was a double fault on my part). The first announcement, which I only mentioned in passing in that piece, was of further delay in the introduction of import controls on EU goods. The second, which I didn’t mention at all, was about the possibility of an EU-UK Youth Mobility Scheme.

Not taking back control

It’s actually not such a bad idea to have a gap between announcements and analysis, as ‘hot takes’ often miss important nuance. That applies to a degree to the Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS) issue, which I’ll come back to, but hardly at all to that of import controls. In the latter case, there is hardly a ‘hot take’ available, given that almost everything that could be said about it has been said on the five previous occasions controls have been postponed. Last time I discussed the issue, two weeks ago, when the common user charge was announced (about which, interesting new data and analysis of its likely costs was published last week by the UK Trade Policy Observatory), I said in a response to a comment on that piece that the reason the checks were going ahead this time was that a further postponement “would be too ludicrous”. So that was yet another blunder on my part, and a particularly foolish one as I ought to know that nothing is too ludicrous when it comes to Brexit.

I don’t see much point in rehashing the reasons for this mess, which has its roots in the refusal by the government, and by Brexiters in general, to accept that such controls were the inevitable consequence of hard Brexit and, as such, have been in prospect since at least January 2017. Yet only in December 2020 did the government produce its policy paper on the ‘2025 UK Border Strategy’, having meanwhile refused to extend the transition period, thus creating a highly unrealistic timescale for a system that is heavily reliant on government IT procurement, as well as a new physical infrastructure (some of which has turned out to be unnecessary as government plans chopped and changed). There is, no doubt, a whole book to be written about the many mis-steps there have been along the way, and it is a reminder that the UK was not only totally unprepared for this very core aspect of Brexit, but is unable to afford it.

The only nuance to be added about this latest delay is to note that the government has now created an almost dizzying array of partial introductions and phasing-in of measures. Part of that was in-built from the start. Whereas the EU introduced full controls the day after the transition period ended, the UK version was not just later but always included, for example, the phasing of dates by which, first, new paperwork requirements were introduced and, then, physical checks, as well as there being different dates according to the risk categorization of the product in question. But, on top of that, further layers of complexity have gradually been added. Examples include the announcements in March of a delay until 2025 on checks on goods coming from Ireland and, in January, that the risk categorizations of various fruits and vegetables had been changed so as to come within the ambit of checks, but, in these cases, not until October.

This has made it easier for the government to pass off this latest delay as if it were no more than a further ‘technical’ change to risk categorizations, so that only the highest risk goods will have physical checks “turned on” at the end of this month (though the common user charge will begin, regardless of that). As a result, this delay has passed off more quietly than the previous ones, for few people, unless directly affected, can begin to understand, still less to be much agitated by, changes to what has become so byzantine a story. However, those who are affected most certainly are agitated by a system which, in the words of the Chair of the Small Business Federation, “is in complete disarray”.

Labouring the point

From a policy, or public administration, perspective, what has happened is a farce, and one which, politically, could have a major impact if, as it risks, there were to be a major outbreak of animal or even human health disease as the result of contaminated products being imported. However, for the moment, the main political talking point is whether this latest delay amounts to a political trap for an incoming Labour government, forcing it to be the one to introduce controls which are likely to create long queues and supply disruptions, as well as price increases and reduced consumer choice.

My own view is that it is more likely that, fearing such effects, the Conservatives’ intention is more about avoiding that happening before the election than laying a trap for Labour afterwards. That is because one of the few Brexit-related commitments Labour seem clear about is to seek a Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) agreement with the EU which, if made, would obviate the need for most of these controls. That would, however, entail Labour accepting ‘dynamic alignment’ (about which they have been coy) and, even though it is likely the EU will be agreeable, it will take time to negotiate. So it can’t be ruled out that Labour would need to introduce some additional, interim checks beyond whatever is in place by the time of the election.

It is a mark of this strange political period we are living through that there is much attention to what an incoming Labour government would do. It’s not just that, as I wrote recently, we are a country on hold. It’s that this has been going on for so long, and the opinion polls suggesting a huge Labour victory have proved so durable, that political commentators have virtually lost interest in speculating about the next election and are already talking more about the government that will follow or, even, the election which will follow that. In some cases, that next Labour government is already being written off as a failure, doomed to win only a “hollow victory”, to become immediately unpopular with the public, and to be internally “ungovernable” into the bargain. All these things may prove true, but such predictions seem rather premature when we are probably six months from an election that has still to be fought, let alone won.

No mobility, please, we’re British

Nevertheless, speculation about what a future Labour government would do is perhaps the key aspect of the other of last Thursday’s news stories. This was what was unhelpfully and misleadingly reported as an offer from the EU to the UK of “free movement for young people” (meaning 18-30-year-olds). It was misleading, firstly, because it was not an ‘offer’ to the UK. It was a proposal and recommendation from the European Commission to the Council which, if accepted, would empower the Commission to launch negotiations with the UK. Secondly, as the detailed text makes clear, the proposal is not for ‘free movement’, even for this age group, but would have severe constraints including on length of time (probably four years) and location (movement would be confined to one EU country, rather than to the EU bloc), and several other restrictions.

The idea behind the proposal is not novel, in the sense that something like it was envisaged in the non-binding Political Declaration that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement. That never got developed in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement talks because Johnson and Frost declined to do so, in line with their minimalist approach to the negotiations. That the EU should be making such a proposal at this particular moment is a matter of some speculation, but the Commission’s text includes under the heading ‘reasons for and objectives of the recommendation’ the words: “In the course of 2023, the United Kingdom approached several (but not all) Member States with the intention of negotiating arrangements on youth mobility, modelled upon the United Kingdom’s youth mobility visa scheme. This approach would result in differential treatment of Union nationals.”

Thus many well-informed commentators, including Anand Menon, have suggested, and I agree, that this suggests that a key motivation for the timing of the proposal was to fend off UK attempts to make bi-lateral agreements with EU member states, and, conversely, to preserve a union-wide approach to managing UK-EU post-Brexit relationships. This relates to a point I made in last week’s piece, about how the UK has never really learned the lesson contained in the very first draft of the EU’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, namely that the bloc would act as a bloc. That failure doesn’t just show a continuing naivety about the EU. In the case of seeking bilateral youth mobility agreements, it also shows a maladroitness of diplomacy since those EU countries excluded from such approaches, and likely to resent that exclusion, are also likely to include some with which the UK is keen to have good relations for other purposes, such as defence or the control of irregular migration.

However that may be, the government immediately rejected the EU’s ‘proposal’ whilst repeating its preference for “country-by-country deals” with some EU members thereby displaying, at the least, a diplomatic tin ear and, at most, and in fact, its failure to learn that wider lesson. With equal alacrity, Labour stated that “it has ‘no plans for a youth mobility scheme’ if it wins the general election later this year” and that “it had already pledged ‘no return to the single market, customs union or free movement’ if it takes office.”

There was little to be surprised about in either reaction. The stranglehold the Brexiters have on the Tory Party needs no rehearsing, and the tedious assertion of one commentator that this development meant that “the EU has finally admitted it needs Britain more than we need it” suggests that some parts of Brexitland still have the 2016 calendar on the wall. As for the Labour Party, as I noted recently, infuriating as many ‘remainers’ find it, there is simply no prospect of it making any fresh commitments about the EU before the election. However, the formulation of Labour having ‘no plans’ for a YMS is one which leaves a tiny amount of wriggle-room, whilst the reference to the freedom of movement ‘red line’ is, strictly speaking, irrelevant given that YMS is not freedom of movement. So it remains possible that they will become bolder on YMS and other EU matters after the election.

What is a certainty is that they won’t do so any earlier. Labour resemble a team in a three-legged egg and spoon race, with the egg being made by Faberge. They aren’t going to risk the tiniest spill by giving the Tories and the Brexit press an angle to attack them. That carries its own risks, even pre-election, as it might boost support for the LibDems, who favour a YMS. It also carries risks for post-election room for manoeuvre. But, like it or not, and agree with it or not, it is obvious that Labour have decided to take those risks.

Them and us

The political dynamics of the YMS proposal for Labour have led to much comment that the Commission’s timing was unhelpful to Starmer. Such comment is misguided, not just because, as discussed above, the timing had a different motivation, but because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about Brexit. However, I don’t think that misunderstanding is quite as presented by Menon, when he says that “some in the UK need to rid themselves of the idea that the EU are falling over themselves to get down to business with a new Government”.

I take that point to an extent – the EU’s approach to the UK will be driven by its own interests, not vague sentiment – but I also take the points made in response to it by Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, another highly respected expert on UK-EU relations. Rahman thinks, rather as I do, that the geo-political context is now so different to that which obtained during the Brexit negotiations that quite significant developments in those relations are in both the EU’s and the UK’s interests, and are not just limited to security in its narrow sense.

Nevertheless, what continues to have definitively changed as a result of Brexit is that the EU no longer has any interest in tip-toeing around political sensibilities in the UK. There was a great deal of that when Britain was an EU member, just as there is for any member. Brexiters represent it as a weakness of the EU that it needs to accommodate the often-diverging priorities of its members (for example in trade negotiations), whilst simultaneously lambasting the EU for over-riding those priorities. But the reality is that the EU is a constant negotiation between these two poles.

In the UK’s case, its multiple opt-outs from core EU projects showed Brussels’ recognition of the constraints of British politics. That recognition continued even during the Brexit negotiations, but effectively ended once the Theresa May Withdrawal Agreement was finalised*, and the change was crystallised in one specific moment, in February 2019, when Donald Tusk made his ‘special circle of hell’ comment about those who had led the campaign for Brexit despite having no idea about how to deliver it. He did so knowing, but no longer caring, that, as Leo Varadkar warned, the British press would ‘have a field day’ with his remarks.

At all events, the point now is that, although Brexiters and the pro-Brexit media remain obsessed with the EU, the EU is no longer interested in them, and still less in placating them. That is not just a matter of indifference. Crucially, it is because, to the extent that there is indeed an EU interest in agreeing closer relations with the UK, that interest is only served by durable agreements with the UK state, rather than any that might be ‘slipped through’ by any particular UK government. In other words, if agreements were only possible through carefully-timed diplomacy that is sensitive to the domestic political constraints of such a government, then they would be inherently fragile.

So it isn’t just that the EU isn’t interested in placating UK domestic political divisions, it’s that its interests aren’t served by agreements which rest on it placating such divisions. That applies to the YMS, but, writ large, it applies to any and every agreement that might be reached, up to and including the UK re-joining the EU. The consequence is that any progress that a future Labour government might make in repairing the damage of Brexit will require it to build a sustainable domestic political consensus for that repair quite as much as it will require negotiation with the EU.

Us and them

It is clear we are a long way from such a consensus. Indeed, the two stories discussed in this piece are amongst many examples of the way that Britain is incapable of facing up to Brexit. In the case of import controls, we literally shy away from the damage of enacting Brexit. In the case of YMS, we can’t give careful consideration to, let alone accept, even a quite modest reversal of the damage which enacting Brexit has done.

I’m sometimes told that it is only ‘people like you’ who are still going on about Brexit, and that no one except a few ‘remainiacs’ cares about it anymore. If that were true, the path ahead would be easy and quick, leading at the very least to a very much closer relationship with the EU. But the reality is that there are plenty of voters, and a very large segment of the political class and commentariat, who continue to care very deeply about Brexit and who have scarcely moved on from positions they held years ago. David Frost, writing with Robert Jenrick in the Telegraph last week, is a prime example, still chuntering on about the need to “defend” Brexit rather than treat it as “an embarrassing secret”, still holding out the myth of wonderful Brexit benefits that can be unleashed, and still – incredibly – trotting out the line that the Northern Ireland Protocol was only “temporary” and that the Windsor Framework should either be re-negotiated or unilaterally dropped. Meanwhile, for all that ‘remainiacs’ bemoan Starmer’s rather constipated timidity, Frost insists that even that would be enough for Labour to “undo” Brexit.

It would be nice, and in a better polity it would be accurate, to regard Frost as no more than a fringe figure, promoted well beyond his competence, and seeking to defend his own indefensible legacy. But he speaks for the now rampant Brexitism of the Tory Party, as shamefully displayed with the passing of the Rwanda Bill last week. The Rwanda policy comes from the same ideological maw as Brexit, exhibits the same preference for belief over reality (‘Rwanda is a safe country’) and the same fantasy that ‘sovereignty’ can make it so, shows the same indifference to international reputation, and will share the same fate of simply not being able to do what it promises it will do. The only sense in which it is not the embodiment of Brexitism is that the hardline Brexitists think it doesn’t go far enough.

It is this implacable Brexitism which, without representing the majority of the population, is powerful enough to hold the rest of the country to ransom. It is a large part of what prevents us from undertaking the kind of honest national self-assessment provided by an excellent new book by Financial Times’ journalist Michael Peel, What Everyone Knows about Britain (except the British). Of course, such an assessment, when undertaken collectively, is never going to yield unanimity – in a pluralist society, that’s impossible by definition – but we do need a broadly shared understanding of some key policy issues, most notably immigration, and of Britain’s place in the world. If there is such a thing as national political psychology, then we are in dire need of an intense course of psychotherapy.

Some may bridle at my use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ in all this. The fault, after all, lies with the Brexiters and Brexitists – with ‘them’, not ‘us’. It’s certainly highly tempting to think so, and I doubt I’m the only person to still have a “don’t blame me, I voted remain” mug lurking in the cupboard. But, as time goes by, I’m increasingly convinced that this is part of the problem that Brexit has bestowed, rather than part of any process of solution, and that conviction has been increased by reading Peel’s book. There’s a sense in which we have, collectively – through the kinds of political institutions and political discourse we have allowed to develop or persist – arrived at this point, whatever individual lack of culpability any one of us may, with some justice, feel we have.

I’m not sure where that thought leads (perhaps I’ll return to it in a future piece). I don’t mean to absolve Brexiters for what they have done, and are still doing. But I suppose it implies the need for a greater recognition from those of us who oppose Brexit that what lies ahead is going to be a slow and arduous process of consensus-building as regards repairing the EU relationship, as well as of wider political reform. If Brexit teaches us anything, it is to be sceptical of quick, easy, and simple solutions to complex problems, and Brexit has bequeathed us a complex problem.

That said, the costs, both economic and non-economic, of Brexit are so high that we don’t have much time to play with. If consensus-building is the pre-condition of a solution, it won’t happen on its own but will require political leadership. Realistically, that can currently only come from a Labour government facing up to Brexit. So, whilst Labour’s extreme pre-election caution is clearly not going to change, the moment the election is won they must not delay in starting to provide such leadership. How likely is that? I don’t know, but it’s the best hope that we have.


(*) It could be argued that it re-appeared at the moment that Varadkar and Johnson had their ‘walk in the park’ that led to the revised Northern Ireland Protocol. However, I think that was much more about Varadkar’s and Ireland’s interest in the island of Ireland than it was about trying to accommodate English Brexiters.


▪ This piece was first published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 2 May 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Nicoleta Ionescu.

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