Richard North, 16/01/2017  

One of the oddest things I've been finding in my background research on the potential effects of a "walk away" from the Article 50 negotiations, leaving us relying solely on WTO rules, is how little information or discussion there is on the potential consequences.

There is an endless procession of people saying we should "just leave" and take up the WTO option – the latest being Bill Clarke in the letters column of The Sunday Telegraph, who says there is no need to reach agreement with the 27 EU Member States. But, like the idiot Goodman in Conservative Home, it is perilously clear that Clarke and most of the others advocating a "walk away" can have no idea of what this entails.

These people, it would seem, not only want us to jump off the edge of a cliff, they want us to do it blindfold and in the dark, mentored by people who are unable to tell us whether the ledge gives way to a six-inch or thousand-foot fall. And merely to ask is to be condemned for making things needlessly complicated.

This was very much the case with my research on the haulage industry and Brexit. Google those terms: "haulage industry" and "Brexit" and it is remarkable how little material there is. Then, most of the stuff produced, from trade or legal sources, is extraordinarily generalised, verging on the complacent. Throughout, one sees the assumption that any difficulties that might be encountered will be sorted out in the negotiations.

By coincidence, to add to my work, we now have a BBC article - repeated in the Independent and elsewhere - which warns that "people flying to the UK could face 'severe disruption' after Brexit unless the Border Force employs more people".

The warning comes from the Airport Operators Association (AOA) which is concerned that the creation of a "hard" border for the nationals of EU Member States would require extended processing times arising from more stringent passport checks, and result in longer queues at immigration control.

The AOA, which represents more than 50 UK airports, complains that a growth in air traffic has not been matched by an increase in resources for Border Force. Even without Brexit, this has already led to longer queues at passport desks. In 2015, a record number of 251 million passengers were processed through Britain's airports. Yet Border Force staff numbers fell from 8,332 in 2014-15 to 7,911 in 2015-16.

The coming problem, according to the Independent, is that EU nationals arriving in the UK are currently screened through a "soft" border – an identity verification that generally takes less than 25 minutes. Non-EU passengers are required to go through a "hard" border, which assesses whether they have the right to enter. This can take considerably longer – often up to 45 minutes.

If all overseas passengers have to be intensively screened, it is feared that this could lead to an increase in waiting times. Any such increase would be "highly disruptive" for passengers, airlines and airports. Airports would also have to spend millions of pounds on extra facilities for immigration checks. Tourism volumes - a major export earner - might be affected.

Almost needless to say, the official line is dismissive. A Home Office spokesperson says: "We are about to begin negotiations with the EU and it would be wrong to set out further positions in advance, but we are clear that Border Force has the capacity to meet passenger demand and maintain security".

Now, there are several points that arise from this. Firstly, there is the Home Office assumption that there will be negotiations. However, in the "walk away" context, there will be no [successful] negotiations with the EU – a "hard" border would be an inevitable consequence.

Secondly, although it has been suggested, pre-referendum, that UK citizens would be unaffected in British airports, it optimistic to suggest that they would be spared any disruption. Despite Home Office assurances, the Border Control is not meeting its targets. And with a common resource, the more intensive processing of nationals of EU Member States will require additional staff. Doubtless, they will be drawn from the general pool – with inevitable knock-on effects. At the very least, if more staff is employed, million-pound costs increases must be anticipated.

The third point to bear in mind is that any disruption is unlikely to be confined just to airports. It has already been suggested that the Channel ports could be affected. And as we have recently seen, the disruptive effect that even modest changes to passport controls can bring are substantial. Added to customs clearance hassles, the impact could halt the flow of traffic.  

The fourth point is that, if we decide to impose a more rigorous regime on our Continental neighbours, as night follows day UK citizens will be treated in a similar fashion when they seek entry to EU Member States. And just because more resources will be required to handle extra checks, that does not mean that European authorities will necessarily provide them.

Where there has been a breakdown in negotiations and the UK has decided to walk away, in the acrimonious aftermath one can hardly expect the French State to dole out millions of euros, just to give UK tourists an easy time – especially when French citizens are suffering considerable delays. And with talk of visas and the payment of fees in order to travel to EU Member States, the delays could multiply.

Perversely, nothing of this was foreseen by the Association of British Travel Agents, which published a report in March 2016 (pre-referendum) on the potential effects of Brexit on the travel industry. Its concern was of "a high likelihood of uncertainty during the negotiation period immediately following the referendum". "This", it said, "could last until a replacement set of trading relations and regulations were in place, which could take several years".

Even then, this was styled by the Daily Mail as a "disaster" for tourism. But not for one minute was it thought that the UK could walk away from the table without a deal – or that it might happen accidentally as a result of our negotiators running out of time.

Mind you, one has to wonder at the competence of ABTA officials who, along with Deloitte, wrote the report. They assert that a "leave" vote would trigger "two years of negotiations among the remaining EU Member States to agree the terms to be offered for a continued trading relationship with the UK". It then said: "The UK could not take part in these negotiations".

It was only months ago that this level of stupidity was being taken seriously by the media and politicians – another canard to fall by the wayside, only to be replaced by many more. Small wonder that there is so much uncertainty about outcomes.

More recently, there seems to have been an epidemic of complacency with Terry Williamson, CEO of hotel consolidator and inbound service provider JacTravel saying: "I am still exceptionally positive about this industry, both outbound and inbound".

Thomas Cook's UK boss Chris Mottershead, said: "There are actually more impactful areas that we have to deal with on a daily basis, whether it's a terrorist attack, or a volcano, you name it. There is always something this industry has had to deal with over the years and actually has done remarkably well in dealing with it". With that, he said, "I don't think this is any different in reality I don't see the significance of the impact of Brexit having the same impact as some of the others".

Against this, a trade press editorial recently warned the travel industry that it needed to re-think its place in the world given the multiple challenges facing the world. "The geopolitical realities of our world" – of which Brexit was one - "are worth embracing by the travel industry, instead of ignoring them or, worse still, wishing them away", it said.

It does seem, however, that the ignorance of the "walk away" advocates is being matched by an unwarranted degree of industry complacency – across the board. It appears that very little thought is being given to the impact of a complete breakdown of talks.

It is perhaps this, more than anything else, which is contributing to the air of unreality, whereby the risk of a "hard" Brexit is being understated. Should people start realising what is actually involved, there might be a very different political climate. The AOA report might be the first sign of this happening.

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