Working to make government more effective


Brexit border risks loom for government during an election year

The Brexit anniversary may not bring much to celebrate for Rishi Sunak.

women in meat aisle at supermarket
New paperwork requirements may also lead to supply disruption and shortages if some EU suppliers decide it is not worth making the necessary adjustments – and risking delays – to bring goods over the Channel.

Voters are going to be feeling the unwelcome impacts of Brexit throughout 2024 – and that's not what the government needs in an election year, writes Jill Rutter

On 31 January 2024 it will be four years since Brexit started to become real.  

Although people (as opposed to UK businesses) have experienced some changes as a result of the new relationship – for example being forced into longer passport queues – decisions by the UK and the EU mean the dial could be turned up further through election year.  

Extra costs are not the type of Brexit bonus the government had in mind

The UK's departure from the EU meant GB exporters were immediately subject to the full panoply of controls when they crossed into the EU. However, the UK government repeatedly delayed imposing controls in the other direction – until now. This year it finally appears that the UK is to start the process of putting in place controls: new paperwork requirements are being introduced from 31 January, culminating in full controls in operation in October.

The last delay was attributed to the risk that introducing controls in the autumn would add to inflation – potentially getting in the way of achieving the prime minister’s target of halving inflation by the end of the year.  

Now the government now appears to have decided to go ahead, which may mean that inflation in an election year is – slightly – higher than it otherwise might have been. That is probably not a Brexit bonus that the government was keen to celebrate this year.  

The government could face awkward supply shortage headlines

But – more strikingly – these checks may also lead to supply disruption and shortages if some EU suppliers decide it is not worth making the necessary adjustments – and risking delays – to bring goods over the Channel. While the run-up to Christmas is a particularly bad time to introduce new border controls, the period of January to March is one when the UK is most dependent on imported produce. Last year then environment secretary Therese Coffey was widely ridiculed for suggesting people should eat turnips when there were shortages of fruit and vegetables – like tomatoes – last year.  

This year there are warnings that the new controls could lead to shortages of goods as varied as pork (where there is a complicated pig carcass sharing regime across Europe – we get the chops, Europeans get ears and trotters), Dutch tulips and, if seedlings wither in border control posts, strawberries, which could mean a shortage at Wimbledon. The problem is both capacity at the border – with potential for delays causing perishable goods to perish – but also a Europe-wide lack of vets to sign off the necessary certificates.    

Any shortage – whether strike, weather or border related – risks being laid at the door of Brexit. It will prove a convenient scapegoat – and a highly televisual one. And the government will be on the back foot to explain away these Brexit non-benefits.

Brexit supporters may blame the prime minister for self-inflicted woes

The decision to go ahead with controls now seems a “brave” one in an election year. Some of the prime minister’s most vocal critics in parliament will argue that the UK did not need to do this. Neither Jacob Rees-Mogg nor Lord Frost thought the UK should impose EU-style controls at the GB-EU border – even though the failure to do so meant EU businesses found exporting to GB much easier than those British businesses who have – for the last three years – been forced to navigate controls moving into the EU. This was one of a growing list of asymmetries in application of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which tilted it further against GB business (though with potential benefits to GB consumers).  

But the UK was committed to imposing some sort of controls, and in the long-term it was not clear how it could justify checking goods from the rest of the world but not from the EU – with agencies warning of risks from diseases such as African swine flu being imported over the border. Those considerations seem to have won out over political convenience. 

These new goods controls are not the end of the government’s Brexit border woes. Just as the UK has repeatedly delayed checks on goods, the EU has repeatedly delayed its new system requiring biometric checks on people crossing the border into Schengen.  4  If not delayed again, those checks are likely to come in in October – with threats to snarl up ports at half term and create delays in some airports as people make their first journeys when they need to have their fingerprints and facial images recorded. At least the new ETIAS system for entry pre-authorisation (at a cost of seven euros) is not now due until 2025. A UK government could try to plead with EU counterparts to kick the entry checks into 2025 as well – or to find some ways to reduce the potential for cross-Channel chaos. If not, these checks could come into force at what might be a critical time later in the year. 

The silver lining may be that the EU might be more willing to talk streamlining

Finally imposing border controls may bring one benefit. If EU businesses experience some of the same pain as their British counterparts then that – potentially – would make it easier for an incoming government to negotiate a deal on sanitary and phytosanitary checks. This would bring benefits on both sides of the Channel, and have the significant benefit of reducing the impact of the border in the Irish Sea.

Who has the option to try to use that opportunity will be decided by an election where neither side wants to talk much about Brexit. Events may yet force them to do so.  

Related content