Richard North, 14/09/2021  

Archie Norman, chairman of M&S, has asserted that EU controls on exports, due to be mirrored on imports from Ireland and the continent, have added 24-hour delays to his company's deliveries and "serve no purpose at all". Food standards remain aligned to the EU, he says, so: "This is a pointless exercise".

"What we've discovered", he says, "is that the EU rules for governing borders, and their customs union are totally out of date, and not suited for the purpose they are designed for", calling them "a fandango of bureaucracy".

"Our product, our fresh sandwiches and ready meals, going to Ireland or France are delayed by about a day", he complains, adding: "that is not good if you are a sandwich". Only about 80 percent of our product gets through, he observes, "less than that in France because the French, predictably, are draconian".

What is extremely worrying about this is that the chairman of a major UK food retailer is apparently ignorant of the basic principles of the EU's "official controls". By his "customs union" reference, it is not even clear that he understands what he is actually dealing with.

His display of ignorance is at its most profound, though when he notes that "food standards remain aligned to the EU", and thus considers that the controls are "a pointless exercise".

The man seems to be so isolated from reality that Michel Barnier's caution obviously hasn't registered – that in leaving the EU and the Single Market, we are stepping outside the "regulatory ecosystem". Does not Norman realise that alignment with EU regulations is just the basic requirement for export? To be exempted from border checks requires much more.

But even without that, does he not realise that WTO rules require non-discrimination in the treatment of third countries. Without there being a specific "veterinary agreement", the EU must carry out the same checks on UK goods as it does on goods from any other third country.

On a broader level, his company enjoyed the ability to export fresh products such as sandwiches to his shops in other EU member states as a result of the UK's participation in the Single Market, a function of our EU membership. Does he seriously think that alignment with EU rules is sufficient to retain access to the Single Market?

The irony is that M&S has a reputation for maintaining the highest standards of food safety in the business, often imposing requirements on its suppliers that exceed statutory requirements, including requiring them to submit to additional, company-mandated inspections.

He is the very last person in the world to complain of "a fandango of bureaucracy", when doing business with M&S is far more onerous than having to deal with (by contrast) the relatively modest requirements of the EU.

The intervention of Norman (once again) into the Brexit debate, though – and the almost reverential treatment of this "prestige" figure by the legacy media – illustrates the low quality of the discourse, and the difficulty in settling on the relevant issues.

By now, one would have thought, it would have been understood that border controls are here to stay, and the need is to tailor trade patterns accordingly. That includes recognising that much of what was commonplace while we were in the Single Market will no longer be feasible.

As to the other side of the coin – whether the UK should delay the implementation of its own border checks – there is an indication that there is no great enthusiasm for this idea.

Predictably, NFU representative Nick von Westenholz – whose members stand to benefit from the imposition of controls – opposes a delay. It would "do little to address these problems, nor the long-term trade frictions we are experiencing", he says.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) takes the view that the big importers such as supermarkets are already prepared for the checks. On balance, a delay will only help small food suppliers in France, Spain and elsewhere in the EU who are not ready to handle the extra controls.

FDF chief executive, Ian Wright, says: "Most of our members who do this stuff regularly have done an enormous amount of work on this and invested really considerable sums in training, in getting new relationships with customs agents and in personnel. That’s all going to be wasted to some degree if it doesn’t start on 1 October".

The Guardian then tells us that sources at high street retailers have conveyed to the government that delays "would not be helpful as they would add more uncertainty".

The source also says that a delay would mean, "there will be an asymmetric relationship for British business where we are doing all the work on exports and paying the costs while EU business don't have any of these checks or costs". The government, he says, "has been telling us firmly for the last six months there will be no changes, so its credibility is on the line here".

However, while reports within the industry say the government seems to be divided on the matter, there is evidently more to this than meets the eye. The Independent is running a story which suggests that some of the ports are simply not ready to carry out the necessary checks.

This does not apply to all ports, by any means, but some are complaining about the lack of guidance about where different kinds of goods will need to be brought into the country. Others say they are struggling to physically build the infrastructure needed for the checks, because of global supply chain shortages for building materials and labour.

One of those ports is undoubtedly Dover, where the extra staff needed have yet to be recruited and trained, and where planning permission for new buildings has not been secured. Even if the government wanted to go ahead, therefore, the mechanisms for carrying out checks uniformly throughout the country simply to not exist.

The problem seems to be exacerbated by the inability of government to set out details of what foods and other products each of the border control posts should handle. The lack of clarity throws out the plans of both businesses and port health authorities – which must plan staffing levels and provide sufficient facilities.

Given that the requirements have been on the cards ever since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017, that the preparations haven't already been made is a serious indictment of this administration. There has been plenty of time to get things sorted and we should not still be messing about.

The same goes for the fool Frost, and his Northern Ireland protocol, which continues to cast a shadow over relations with the EU, and hamper the rational implementation of border controls.

Currently, he is threatening to suspend the protocol unless the EU takes his renegotiation proposal "seriously", based on his earlier command paper.

This is another instance of people in high places who seem unable to grasp the basics. There must come a point when the EU finally loses patience, and the issue comes to a head, but there is no value in trying to predict events or second-guess any of the players.

Obviously, the longer this drags on, the greater the uncertainty and the more damage caused, but with all the other issues mounting for this government, Brexit may end up being the least of our problems. It nevertheless remains disturbing that the "top people" seem to be in a world of their own.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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