Britain is edging closer to the precipice. With just seven months until Britain leaves the European Union (EU) on 29 March, the government has released its first contingency plans to mitigate the chaos of leaving without an agreement.
On Thursday, Britain’s government issued the first 25 of more than 80 technical notices, designed to prepare British citizens and businesses should negotiations with the EU fail. The government will release its remaining advice by the end of September.
‘We have a duty, as a responsible government, to plan for every eventuality,’ Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab said. ‘To do this, we need to have a sensible, responsible and realistic conversation about what a no deal situation really means in practice.’
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would thrust Britain into crisis management, since Britain would forfeit its agreed 21-month transition period of continued engagement with the EU. Instead, cross-border trade would experience an abrupt shock. The ‘free circulation of goods would cease’, replaced by a tangle of bureaucratic hurdles.
While Raab insisted Britain would take ‘unilateral action to maintain as much continuity as possible’, Thursday’s technical notices revealed the extent to which a ‘no deal’ Brexit could disrupt Britain’s economy and its citizens.
Goods moving between Britain and the EU would face new regulatory requirements such as import declarations, custom checks and revised tariffs. This is likely to precipitate border delays and reduce supplies, with Britain’s government advising manufacturers to stockpile medicines for up to six weeks above normal operations.
Particularly concerning is the disruption to Britain’s organic farmers. Organic exports to the EU would cease until the EU certifies British standards. This process cannot start until after Brexit and EU certification takes nine months.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would also compromise citizens’ daily life. As the technical notes advise, the cost of credit and debit card payments between Britain and the EU will ‘likely increase’ – a headache for millions of consumers enjoying online shopping from EU suppliers.
British citizens residing in the EU could see their pension payments compromised, while the supply of semen for fertility treatment could also drop since Denmark provides almost half of Britain’s donor sperm.
Thursday’s series of technical notices failed to address one of Brexit’s most vexing issues – maintaining the border between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, an EU member state. The only statement provided by Britain’s government was that ‘we will provide more information in due course’.
While Raab reassured citizens on Thursday that a ‘no deal’ Brexit ‘is not what we want [and] it is not what we expect,’ the government’s technical notices have only fuelled anti-Brexit sentiment. Deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, Josh Hardie, argued that ‘by now, few can be in any doubt that ‘no deal’ would wreak havoc’.
So why did Britain’s government release this technical advice?
As the New York Times’ London correspondent, Stephen Castle, asserted, Britain’s decision to release the documents reflects a political gamble.
Britain seeks to strengthen its negotiating clout, demonstrating to the EU that it’s ‘ready to walk away from crucial Brexit talks…this year if necessary’.
Yet, Britain’s government is trying to strike a careful balance between preparedness and panic – proving that it can face ‘every eventuality’ without compromising its citizens' faith in the Brexit project.
However, most citizens already expect Britain to leave the EU without an agreement. A KPMG survey of over 3,000 people found that all demographic groups believe a ‘no deal’ Brexit is more likely than a negotiated outcome. A total of 54 per cent of all respondents believe a ‘no deal’ Brexit is ‘likely’. Only 20 per cent said it is ‘unlikely’ and 70 per cent think prices would rise in a ‘no deal’ scenario. Yet, this has not shifted attitudes towards Brexit overall.
Instead, Britons remain stalwart in their views. Of those who voted ‘leave’, 89 per cent said they would vote the same way if asked again. And in the ‘remain’ camp 93 per cent expressed the same sentiment.
Thursday’s notices show how difficult it will be to extricate Britain from the EU after 40 years in the bloc. They also exposed a spate of unresolved concerns. At this stage, only one thing is certain: Britain remains bitterly divided as it drifts toward the cliff’s edge.
Caitlin Clifford is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.