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Checking in on Brexit, which seems to be going swimmingly

At least if your idea of fun is widespread talk of stockpiling food; worry about disruptions to the industrial supply chain; and a chronic shortage of farm labor. 

A man holding an anti-Brexit banner on Westminster Bridge, in central London, on July 13.
REUTERS/Yves Herman

This is a pretty good example of what can happen when you listen to politicians who tell you how terrific it will be if you tighten borders, distance yourself from allies, and glory in your own national identity.

In Britain this unusually hot summer, there is widespread talk of stockpiling food. Public health officials and drug companies are cooperating to lay in extra supplies of medicines. Others worry about disruptions to the industrial supply chain. And as the peak of harvest season approaches, the country is dealing with what has become a chronic shortage of farm labor.

In one way or another, the worries are mixed up in the mess known as Brexit. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union at precisely 11 p.m. local time on March 29. There is agreement that a transition period will be necessary afterwards, but not on what relations will be like in the long term.

Prime Minister Theresa May put forward a plan a month ago for a relatively soft landing – establishing a new free-trade zone for goods, seeking a middle ground on services (including Britain’s important financial services sector), and ending the EU’s free movement of people across U.K. borders. Her plan is unlikely to fly with EU officials, who will regard it as so much cherry picking. If anything, the reaction in Britain has been worse.

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Two Cabinet ministers who support a tougher approach, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and May’s point man on Brexit, David Davis, resigned. In the words of the Economist, support for the plan “dropped like a stone. Bloomberg news service, which is tracking several British companies through Brexit, quotes their leaders as describing the process as an “omnishambles” or a “joke.”

It’s not entirely May’s fault. She is trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Johnson, of course, is the guy who campaigned for Brexit in a big red bus emblazoned with a sign declaring Britain could spend an extra 350 million pounds a week on its beloved National Health Service if it left the EU. Never one to back down, he now claims that number was too low. Largely for political reasons, the Conservatives actually are boosting funding for the NHS, but not with money saved by leaving the EU.

Ever helpful, President Trump arrived just as May was releasing her plan, and promptly shoved her in front of the Brexit bus. The Sun newspaper quoted him as saying May didn’t take his advice on Brexit, and that Johnson would make a great prime minister. He also reportedly advised May to sue the EU.

Politicians facing a deadline can get very creative very quickly, so it’s far from certain that there will be no Brexit deal. But the lack of progress is making people nervous, and that’s what has made stockpiling “the talk of Britain.”

The U.K. imports about 40 percent of its food, three-quarters of that from the EU, according to the BBC. That means 50,000 tons of food from EU countries pass through its ports every day. In the pre-Christmas season last year, 130 truckloads of citrus from Spain arrived daily in Dover.

Starting later this month, the government is planning to publish advisories about how to prepare for a hard Brexit, and the BBC says business associations are upset with the implication that they are responsible for making sure there are no shortages.

Fresh food, of course, can’t sit around long waiting for customs checks. And business leaders say Britain lacks warehouse capacity to stockpile items that have a longer shelf life.

Other businesses face a similar problem. In a number of industries, Britain is tied into European-wide production that depends on “just in time” deliveries.

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Drug companies are increasing stockpiles of medicine, both in the U.K. and in continental Europe, in case of disruptions. In addition to importing medicine from Europe, the U.K. sends large quantities to the continent. In contrast to the food industry, suppliers reportedly are coordinating closely with British health officials.

The shortage of farm labor is a slightly more complicated affair, but it still is a factor of how open Britain’s borders will be, and the economic impact of Brexit. Five years ago, when May was still home secretary, the government ended a longstanding program under which it admitted seasonal workers from non-EU countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Now it relies primarily on citizens of EU member countries, primarily Romania and Bulgaria.

Industry officials say they were short about 12 percent of needed farm workers last year, and some crops rotted as a result. Indications from earlier this summer were that this year was likely to be worse.

Officials say prospective farm workers may feel unwelcome. They may be unsure what paperwork they need. A weaker British pound resulting from uncertainty over Brexit makes their earnings less valuable. The economy in Romania, in particular, is growing strongly, making it less attractive to leave home.

Several polls suggest British voters now narrowly favor staying in the EU. But there are no plans for a revote. So chances are they will end up with a greater degree of autonomy – whether they want it or not. They’ll have to deal with the consequences.