Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In advance of “No Deal Brexit,” Britain’s watery southern border has been consumed by a weird shipping scandal and fear of a (nonexistent) tide of migrants.
There’s been a strange synchronicity between British and American national obsessions this week. Over the holiday period, both countries’ media and political establishments became fixated on each country’s southern frontier. While America has been hunkering down into a deadlock over the construction of a wall intended to keep people out (or at least to exist as a metaphor for such a process), Britain’s government has been going in the other direction. The U.K. government has been worrying that, post-Brexit, its border controls will be just too effective at keeping things out—specifically the goods and supplies that keep the country running.
This week, the U.K. government admitted that it had earmarked $136 million to pay for extra shipping across the English Channel—shipping that could be needed in the event of the country leaves the E.U. without a deal in place on March 29, 2019. This money has been set aside in case a No Deal Brexit—the term used to describe the possibility of Britain leaving the E.U. without having agreed any terms with the remaining 27 E.U. countries, obliging it (until new deals are negotiated) to trade with European neighbors using bare bones World Trade Organization rules.
This far-from-impossible eventuality would, among other things, have the effect of jamming Britain’s ports as new customs checks slow traffic. Even cursory checks could cause tailbacks of hundreds of miles on roads either side of the narrow, busy Straits of Dover, across which southern England faces France and Belgium. The idea is to lay on extra shipping to alternative ports away from Dover, in order to stop Britain running dry on essential supplies slowed by this gridlock and prevent bare shelves in stores and pharmacies.
It’s not necessarily clear that the government’s No Deal plan to keep Britain flush with wine and shampoo would be effective. Harbor space, for example, is as great an issue as the volume of shipping. But this being contemporary Britain—a grown nation writhing and flailing through its decision-making with all the finesse of a drunk man being attacked by hornets—there’s a yet bigger problem with the plan. One of the six companies chosen by the government to provide extra shipping in the event of No Deal has not shipped any trucks before. It has not, in fact, shipped so much as a peanut.
Seaborne Freight, which won a contract to transfer goods and passengers on the previously defunct route between Belgium’s Ostend and the English port of Ramsgate, is completely new to the game, meaning that a key component of the post-No Deal plan is based on a company that as an entity has never shipped but quite feels like giving it a go.
As the consequence of a process that was supposedly about Britain “taking back control,” this hardly inspires confidence. In a further ironic twist, most of this emergency shipping money will go to companies based not in Britain, but elsewhere in the E.U.
The English Channel is also the site of another Christmas Week story that is complicating the Brexit debate: Since December 25, over 50 migrants have succeeded in entering the U.K. after crossing the narrow straight and washing up on English beaches in small boats and dinghies apparently provided by people smugglers. These migrants (mostly Iranian) have, it has been claimed, crossed partly on the urging of smugglers telling them to cross the Channel before Brexit sealed the border for good. Addressing the issue as a major incident, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has rushed back from vacation to deal with the situation.
But the urgency of this supposed migrant crisis seems more than a little fishy. It’s not just that the reported numbers of boat-borne arrivals are tiny—Britain discovered just over 1,800 clandestine arrivals in southern ports in 2017-18, out of a total of almost 28,000 new asylum claims. It’s also that the numbers of people coming to southern ports has actually been going down recently (until this Christmas upswing), a sign that the wider European migration crisis is slowly abating. This isn’t an exodus on the scale of the much-demonized U.S. caravan, it’s a “flood” in which no month has delivered more arrivals than could comfortably fit into a single London bus.
So, given the small numbers, what is the “crisis” about? While the idea that people smugglers are exploiting desperate migrants in this way is horrible, as yet no deaths in the Channel have been reported. The U.K.’s Labour Party opposition have accused the government of whipping up the story to pressure MPs to vote for Theresa May’s profoundly unpopular Brexit deal.
Quite how it would do so is a little unclear. While the customs situation for goods and services will change after Brexit, the passport control situation for non E.U. citizens will remain exactly the same. That’s because, as a non-signatory of the Schengen agreement, Britain has never ceded any of its border control whatsoever to the E.U. Passport checks at the frontier will not necessarily get tougher, because they have always been in place.
The migrant debate nonetheless reveals something significant. In showing a lack of understanding as to what will happen with the U.K. border after March 29, it seems that either people smugglers or the migrants they profit from (or both) are as in the dark about Brexit as anyone else.