Richard North, 22/01/2021  

The post-referendum "debate", such that it was, discussion was hampered by the binary nature of the discourse. You were either "leaver" or "remainer" in a rigidly binary confrontation, where the "moderate" middle way got squeezed out, shunned by the main protagonists.

Now it seems, in the post-transition era – where the full force of Brexit is beginning to be felt – we're back in the same territory. As tales of woe are garnered by the media, responses have largely stratified into two camps.

On the one hand, there are those, former "remainers" for whom the events supporting their view that Brexit is "a bad thing". On the other hand, there is the "leaver" tendency which sees the problems as evidence of the rule-bound "pettiness" of a "vindictive" EU, thus confirming their decision to leave as the correct one.

As before, nuance has been drowned out by the shouting match between the warring parties, aided and abetted by a venal, superficial media. This is intent on shoehorning reports into a simplistic "red tape" narrative which saves idle hacks the trouble of thinking – assuming they are even capable of such an arduous activity.

Nevertheless, if one dispenses with the filters of partisanship and tries to cut through the media "red tape" dirge, it is possible to discern in the maelstrom of reports (many of them repeated, with or without embellishment) a number of themes.

It may be early days yet, and the fog of confusion lies heavy, but it might be possible to develop a rough categorisation of the post-transition events being experienced, in order to gain some insight into the nature of the problems with which we are dealing.

The first and most obvious category is the one which the Johnson administration would have you believe encompasses the entirety of the post-transition experience: that we are undergoing a series of "teething troubles" which will be resolved with time as the actors get used to their new roles and systems settle down.

At the other extreme are problems of such magnitude and complexity that they are probably incapable of being solved, or are beyond economic redemption. These are likely to become permanent features of the post-transition landscape.

Between the "easily solved with time", and the "insolvable", however, there are multiple layers, all adding up to a picture of immense complexity which defy easy description and which may change with time and better understanding of the issues.

We have, for instance, the shock discovery by exporters of fishery products, and then those who sought to move products of animal origin, that the EU's "official controls" apply to their products, applying requirements which they were not equipped to meet.

Some of the problems here arise because individuals and their trade groups had not realised in time that these controls would be applied (or wrongly believed that they would be exempt from them), and had failed to make the necessary preparations.

But, in a complex picture, where the participation of UK authorities is required (such as in the timely provision of Export Health Certificates), it may be that the authorities themselves have not installed the capabilities necessary to support commercial requirements.

However, there are further variations which may change the categorisation of the problem. We have seen in this respect, shellfish producers working to extremely short timeframes, where it is extremely unlikely that the authorities will ever be able to respond with sufficient speed (or acceptable cost).

In this case, the traders affected may find that that parts of their businesses are no longer viable, the lack of which may threaten the viability of their businesses as a whole.

Allied to this – but also having wider effect – is the problem of groupage. Where "official controls" apply, each separate consignment within the load will have to have its own EHC, and all consignments (whether SPS-related or not) will require unique documentation.

Here, the problems lie in collecting all the required documentation in time and then in ensuring the absence of errors. One fault in one document set relating to one consignment may hold up a whole load, rendering groupage far too problematic for most (or any) carriers to handle.

Businesses which hitherto have relied on groupage services to distribute their goods throughout the EEA may find that they can no longer service their customers by this means. Their problems may drop into the "unsolvable" category.

Others may be more fortunate in that they may be able to find an EU (or EEA) based agent or distributor who is able to take on the import role and handle the import formalities, and thus enable customer needs to be satisfied.

Those less fortunate, or with deeper pockets, may set up their own EU-based subsidiaries to handle their products, although the cost implications may rule this out as an option. Whether their problems are solvable, or not, therefore, requires a case-by-case assessment.

Then there is the service sector to consider. Those businesses which are wholly or mainly service providers may struggle to survive. A UK-based architectural practice – which shares staff and manages commissions jointly between UK and European offices, with frequent exchanges of staff – may find it impossible to operate. Others may be able to compartmentalise their work.

Hybrid businesses, which rely in part on the sale of goods, and then on service elements such as installation and servicing, may find it extremely difficult to survive without an EU-based subsidiary and locally employed staff. Once again, therefore, the "solvability" category will require a case-by-case assessment.

Other issues lie outside the capabilities of any business to resolve. We see an account in RTE News where the Irish Road Haulage Association is complaining about the "serious and far-reaching challenges" hauliers are facing "due to Brexit".

In fact, though, while Brexit is the proximate cause of their woes, the heart of the problem is the approach being adopted by the authorities at the Irish Ports, which is creating an "unmitigated mess" in the post-Brexit environment.

Eugene Drennan, the President of the IRHA, says: "Our members and their customers are experiencing appalling examples of lack of co-ordination by the Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the HSE concerning checks on goods arriving in Dublin".

Instead of adopting an approach aimed at facilitating trade, the Irish authorities seem intent on operating disjointed, duplicating, uncoordinated and excessive checks on goods arriving into Ireland, Drennan writes. "They are employing complex and excessive requirements in a way that will bring trade to a complete standstill if not addressed".

He adds that the problems are not a consequence of new rules being introduced but instead largely a consequence with the manner in which the trading and customs rules have been applied by the Irish authorities.

We are seeing similar problems in the UK, with the usual incompetence and lack of coordination displayed by the authorities, and multiple failures of IT systems, some of which will not be quickly resolved. And the authorities on the mainland continent are not immune to such problems either.

But one thing which is not going to change is the nature of the settlement between the UK and the EU. Barnier himself has recently stressed this, speaking to an Irish audience after receiving the "European of the Year" award from the Dublin-based pro-EU group, European Movement Ireland.

Businesses, north and south, must deal with the consequences of Brexit and accept that it cannot be "business as usual" for trade with Britain, Barnier says. The two treaties [the WA and the TCA] must be implemented "carefully, precisely, objectively", he adds, then telling his audience: "Let me be frank and repeat what I said more or less every day during the last four-and-a-half years: Brexit means Brexit".

To be fair to the man, he has indeed being saying this, emphasising that the UK cannot expect the same degree of unimpeded access to the Single Market that it has previously enjoyed, having stepped outside the EU's regulatory "ecosystem".

With time, we will come to learn in detail exactly what Brexit means but while the media (and businesses, for that matter) are keen to prattle on about red tape, the "paperwork" is not the cause of the problems experienced – only one of the effects.

Whether the root cause is Brexit, however, is arguable. It would be more precise to say that many of the problems arise as a result of Johnson's version of Brexit. But there were always other, better ways of doing things. Whether that is still an option remains to be seen.

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