LONDON – Few things are more likely to cringe in Downing Street than the provisional winner of an inconclusive German election declaring that Brexit is the reason Britons are lining up at gas stations like in 1974.
But there was Olaf Scholz, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, telling reporters on Monday that the freedom of movement guaranteed by the European Union would have alleviated the shortage of truck drivers in Britain which is preventing oil companies from supplying the gas stations across the country. .
“We have worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” said Mr Scholz, when asked about the crisis in Britain. “Now they’ve decided differently, and hopefully they’ll handle the issues that come with it.”
To ordinary people, Mr. Scholz’s criticism may also seem like old news. Britain is no longer debating Brexit. Almost everyone is exhausted from the problem and the country, like the rest of the world, has instead been consumed by the pandemic.
But the coronavirus and the months of economic shutdown it forced have also masked the ways Brexit has disrupted trade. That disguise came off last weekend when gas stations across the country started to run out of gasoline, triggering panic and lines of motorists looking for a refuel.
While it would be wrong to blame a crisis with global ramifications solely on Brexit, there are Brexit-specific causes that are indisputable: of the estimated 100,000 lorry drivers foregone, around 20,000 are non-British drivers who left the country during the pandemic and did not return in part because of stricter post-Brexit visa requirements to work in the country, which went into effect this year.
Mr Johnson recognized this when he backed off last weekend and offered 5,000 three-month visas to foreign drivers in an attempt to replenish the ranks (while also putting military drivers on hold to drive tankers, a decision he has yet to make.)
“You have business models based on your ability to hire workers from other countries,” said David Henig, trade policy expert for the European Center for International Political Economy, a research institute. “You suddenly reduced your job market to one-eighth of what it was before. There is an effect of Brexit on business models that simply haven’t had time to adjust.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that the supply disruptions could last until Christmas, although on Tuesday the most acute problems at gas stations began to ease. The government is hoping normal buying habits will resume now that nervous buyers have filled their tanks.
This is not the first trade disruption to hit Britain since leaving the Single Market in 2020. British shellfish producers have lost entire markets in the European Union due to new health regulations. British consumers have been rocked by high tariffs on gourmet coffee shipments from Italy.
But it is the first disruption to occur since life returned to some semblance of normalcy after 18 months of restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Schools are open; workers go to the office; The sports stadiums are packed on weekends. In this sense, it is the first post-Brexit crisis that has not been masked by the effects of the coronavirus.
It is also geographically selective. Gas stations in Northern Ireland, which has an open border with the Republic of Ireland (a member of the European Union), are not reporting panic shopping. Likewise, Northern Ireland was not affected by the recent carbon dioxide supply shortage as its soda ash bottling plants had access to shipments from mainland Europe.
And yet, Brexit has featured remarkably little in the public debate. This partly reflects a pandemic hangover. This is in part because other countries, from Germany to the United States, are also facing supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, and rising prices of gasoline. oil and gas.
But it also reflects the calcified nature of the debate over Britain’s exit from the European Union. After four and a half years of bickering, even the most ardent Brexit opponents are showing little appetite to question the 2016 referendum. And Brexiteers invariably find other culprits for the bad news.
“Brexit supporters will always believe Brexit was right, but it was the treacherous politicians who messed it up,” said Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “They were also lucky because they can blame the pandemic for everything. “
Pro-government newspapers recognize that Brexit played a role in the labor shortage. But they put more emphasis on the need for the government to be competent in the face of the crisis than on the structural obstacles imposed by Britain’s new status. In an editorial on Tuesday, The Times of London warned Mr Johnson the crisis could shatter confidence in his government.
“There is nothing more visceral than the fear of not being able to get your hands on the basic necessities of life,” the Times said. “What the public will see is a government that has lost control. And for a government elected on a promise to regain control, this is particularly damaging.
For Mr Johnson, the worrying precedent is the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. For two weeks in 2000, he saw his dominant lead in opinion polls evaporate when truck drivers blocked refineries in protest against rising oil prices, sparking a fuel supply crisis similar to that of today.
Speaking in a TV interview, Mr Johnson tried to ease nerves on Tuesday, saying labor shortages were a global problem and made no mention of Brexit.
“I just urge everyone to go about their business as normal and refuel in the normal way when you really need it,” he said.
Public support for Brexit rose slightly in polls earlier this year after the successful rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Britain. Some have attributed the government’s ability to secure vaccines and gain swift approval to its independence from the Brussels bureaucracy.
Pro-Brexit politicians have used a similar argument to justify Mr Johnson’s visa turnaround. Initially, the government balked at the idea as it said more competition for labor would raise wages for UK drivers. Now, these people said, Brexit has strengthened Britain’s ability to welcome foreigners on its own terms.
“The ability to issue more visas if and when our economy needs them is exactly the goal of ‘taking back control’. Of course we should! Liam Fox, a Tory MP who served as Prime Minister Theresa May’s trade secretary, said in a message posted on Twitter.
This assumes that foreigners are prepared to agree to government terms, which in the case of trucker visas include a three-month limit that could put off many potential drivers.
For the Labor Party, which is holding its annual conference in the seaside resort of Brighton this week, the fuel crisis should be a tremendous opportunity to highlight the government’s failings. Yet, with few exceptions, party leaders have failed to find their voice. It is reminiscent of previous debates, where the party’s deep divisions over Brexit hampered its ability to confront the government.
“I was amazed at the reluctance of Labor to prosecute them,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at Kings College London. “You can allude to Brexit without saying Brexit. You can tell it is because of the Conservative garbage trade deal.