The benefits are obvious to anybody who wants to see them, but fanatics from the left and from the right can't see anything beyond the narrow confines of their ideological straightjacket.
British jingoism and decades of anti-EU/EC bashing have condemned the nation to the most damaging self-harm it has inflicted on itself since the war.
A Brexit lesson: EU’s benefits, largely invisible, hurt to lose
Single market perks are no conjuring trick, but the result of years of EU legislation.
Brexit has become the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes — in reverse.
Britons have finally understood (five years too late) why the European Union’s single market and customs union are important: They make EU internal borders invisible.
Rather than a tale of a ruler who discovers he is naked, this is the story of a country that is discovering the importance of benefits it had taken for granted because they could not be seen.
Invisible benefits are easy to forget and hard to sell politically. They are also easy to dismiss and easy to lie about. But the cost of abandoning them can be steep.
Since Britain de facto left the EU on January 1, these invisible advantages have become visible disadvantages — even calamities.
From the rotting fish on Scottish quaysides to the empty shelves at Marks and Spencer stores in Paris, Dublin and Prague, Britain has discovered what it means to wall yourself off from your nearest and most important market.
The lesson could be useful in other EU countries — France especially — where the European single market is remarkably little understood and frequently misrepresented by both the hard right and the hard left.
The post-Brexit trade deal struck by London just before Christmas allows tariff-free trade across the North and Irish seas. Britain insisted, however, on abandoning the intricate machinery of EU laws that allows barrier-free trade across internal EU borders (and also with Norway and Switzerland). As a result, goods entering and leaving the U.K. — from lobsters to airplane parts, cars and fresh sandwiches — suddenly faced new demands for paperwork, health checks and tariffs on components or ingredients from outside the EU.
As a result, British exporters are predicted to face €28 billion in losses this year alone as a result of reduced EU demand and increased frictions and barriers at the EU border.
“There is so much complexity,” Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, told Bloomberg. “It’s like an onion — the more you peel, the more you cry.”
It’s hardly surprising, in hindsight, that the benefits of the EU’s single market set-up have been so misunderstood. Although the single market was largely a British creation — pushed in the late 1980s by Margaret Thatcher and conceived in detail by a British EU commissioner, Lord Arthur Cockfield — the British public was never really taught to understand what it was all about.
British tabloids and right-wing media, including a young correspondent in Brussels called Boris Johnson, mocked the EU laws harmonizing widgets or appealed to xenophobic fears about EU rules on the free movement of people.
Although some outlets ran counter-arguments on the value of a barrier-free single market from Ireland to Hungary, they were scarcely heard above the misleading guffaws about EU regulation on the shape of bananas or prawn cocktail crisps or condom sizes.
In the run-up to the June 2016 Brexit referendum, some of the most senior British politicians spoke of the single market as if it was “just a free trade area.”
“There is a European free trade zone from Iceland to the Russian border and we will be part of it,” Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign, claimed on its website. It failed to mention that this “free trade zone” was the EU’s single market (which also meant free movement of people, obedience to EU laws and paying into the EU budget).
Boris Johnson, then one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign famously told the Sun newspaper after the vote: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it.” He meant that Britain could have all the economic advantages of being in the EU single market and customs union while being outside them.
In December, Johnson, now prime minister, repeated this monstrous lie, telling the BBC anti-Brexiteers had wrongly warned that “you couldn’t have free trade with the EU unless you conformed with the EU’s laws.”
“That has turned out not to be true,” Johnson said. “I want you to see that this is a cakeist treaty.”
Tell that to Marks and Spencer food addicts in Paris (both British and French) who have been faced with empty shelves for the last two weeks.
Tell that to Daniel Lambert, a British wine importer whose 26-tweet thread, explaining the layer upon layer of problems that he now faces, went viral over the weekend.
Tell that to Scotland’s fishermen, one third of whom have been forced to tie up their boats since January 1 because of lengthy delays in what used to be frictionless overnight sales of fish and shellfish to France and Spain. A dozen trucks that usually carry shellfish from the U.K. to the Continent were parked in protest near Downing Street in central London on Monday.
The pro-EU, pro-single-market argument was always difficult to sell in Britain. Because trade barriers had vanished within the then EU28, it was easy to forget that they had once existed and by what mechanisms the convenient status quo was being enforced.
Whole industries had grown up or expanded because it had become as easy to trade between Birmingham and Bremen as between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Many forgot, or else lied about, the fact that this was not a conjuring trick or a normal state of affairs but something achieved through a network of EU agreements, regulations, common health standards, technical harmonization, customs accords and the free movement of people and capital.
These invisible EU borders are only invisible because the work of regulation and protection shifted to the European level. This is the wonky but essential stuff that journalist Johnson and other Euroskeptics have constantly mocked and misrepresented as “EU over-regulation” or “bureaucratic interference from Brussels” or “laws imposed undemocratically.”
Even now British ministers are dismissing the cross-border foul-ups as “teething problems.” Some of them may be. Others are the inevitable, and permanent, consequence of leaving the single market.
This wilful ignorance is far from just British.
France’s favorite hard-right commentator, Eric Zemmour, published an op-ed in Le Figaro last week in which he claimed that Britain had “won” the battle of Brexit. “Great Britain will have access to the big European market without customs duties and without submitting to European law,” he explained.
Zemmour’s argument — pure Johnsonian cakeism, or gâteauisme — misrepresented the barrier-free nature of the “big European market” and air-brushed away the costly difficulties facing U.K.-EU trade post January 1.
Some of those post-Brexit problems will doubtless be resolved with time. Others won’t, leaving the U.K. with a permanently flat tire rather than a broken wheel.
It remains to be seen whether the false promises of Brexit will remind voters in other EU countries — starting with the French, who will cast their ballots in presidential elections in the spring of 2022 — that the EU’s invisible benefits are not so invisible if you open your eyes.