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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK

The Guardian view on Brexit borders: a slow dawning of economic reality

Cars and lorries queue at Dover for a Channel crossing.
Cars and lorries queue at Dover. ‘The bilateral structures that might bring the UK and EU into closer political and economic alignment barely even exist.’ Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The government, considering when to impose a costly new customs bureaucracy, announced last week that now is not the right time. Post-Brexit checks on goods entering Britain from the EU were first supposed to be implemented in January 2021. After serial postponements, they were due to begin next month. Now it won’t happen before 2024.

Goods moving in the other direction are already subject to customs paperwork, making life difficult for UK exporters and pushing some out of business altogether. Ministers have recognised that British consumers and businesses could do without the same penalty being applied to imports. The government admits that import checks would stoke inflation. This is a quiet acknowledgment that friction between the UK and the trading bloc on its doorstep is a drag on the economy. But Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, cannot say so aloud because that would concede the folly of quitting the single market in the first place.

Also last week, the government agreed to protect workplace rights at risk of erasure when EU law is expunged from UK statutes. Under EU treaty provisions, women are entitled to be paid the same as men doing equivalent work as long as there is a common “source” – a condition that protects employees of outsource providers. Labour has committed to replicate that protection in UK law and the government has been shamed into pledging the same.

Earlier this year, it diluted the law that would have seen many other social protections automatically expunged from the statute book at the end of this year. This was a concession to investors who preferred continuity of existing rules to the Eurosceptic fantasy of a vast regulatory bonfire.

Last month, the government abandoned plans to require a UK-specific quality assurance mark for goods sold in Britain, recognising that the European CE mark will suffice “indefinitely”. That was a belated recognition that exporting businesses would need the European certification anyway and none wanted the additional cost of a superfluous UKCA mark – a pointless symbol of hollow sovereignty.

A pattern of discreet Brexit dilution is emerging. Each climbdown confirms hardline Eurosceptic suspicion that their dream is being betrayed. Mr Sunak is caught between a political obligation imposed by his party to pretend that leaving the EU was a great achievement and the economic requirement imposed by reality to palliate the cost of rupture from the continent. He can sustain this ludicrous posture only because the opposition is committed to a similar contortion – pledging closer proximity to the EU without substantial reintegration.

This would be a manageable problem if the pain from Brexit were stable or likely to ease. But the opposite is true. Brexit was not an event, it set a trajectory. It is not an obstacle to be worked around, but a course to be corrected.

That will take time. The bilateral structures that might bring the UK and the EU into closer political and economic alignment barely even exist and there is not yet the political will to conjure them into being. But the alternative is worsening economic debilitation for the sake of a doctrine avowed by a dwindling number of people. The tacit encroachment of reality-based thinking into Mr Sunak’s European policy is a welcome shift. The moment when that reality is expressed with a fuller voice cannot come too soon.

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