WEEKEND COMMENT: TERRY MURDEN asks if we might have to beg our way back into the customs union and Erasmus scheme
There’s a well-known joke that Dave Allen often told about a tourist in Ireland who asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. It might be the mantra for those now charged with negotiating a route out of the bungled trading arrangements between the UK and the EU.
The divorce was finally settled at the turn of the year and we’re now in that messy period where the warring ex-partners are arguing over access to the record collection.
It would be funny if it were not so serious. Those who voted to leave the EU surely weren’t expecting the chaos we’ve seen at the ports and the number of livelihoods that have been put at risk because traders can no longer get goods into market or supplies for their own businesses for the same price.
Exports to the EU in January plunged 40% and the UK government has tried to soften the blow by arguing that a Covid-related slump in demand and the stockpiling that occurred before the end of the year has been partly to blame.
Well, to a point. Clearly, if the continent’s restaurants and hotels are shut there is no so much demand for fresh cod and oysters.
However, James Withers, the deeply-frustrated CEO of Scotland Food and Drink says this is only part of the story and points out that there was not such a big drop in exports during the first lockdown. He states categorically that Brexit is the culprit.
UK ministers this week accepted that their new regulations on allowing trade into Britain are not ready to be implemented and at risk of seeing shortages of supplies and empty shelves in the supermarkets have put their plans on hold. As Alex Altmann, a partner and the head of the firm’s Brexit advisory group at Blick Rothenberg says, the Government have “bought themselves some time”.
But they have also only done half the job. Importers will benefit from the delay, as will EU firms selling to the UK. Our exporters, however, are still wrapped up in Brexit red tape. Ironically, Brexit has helped EU firms and hindered those in Britain.
To add salt into their wounds, exporters are being advised to set up operations in the EU – with the added costs associated with doing so.
This could – and should – have been avoided with better preparation for cross border trade. What did they spend four years talking about if not about how to get goods across the Channel? Instead we had a rushed agreement with companies left with just days to “get ready”.
So, if we are to find our way to our destination, will it mean changing the starting point, or will we just persist with imposing the new, but seemingly unworkable system?
Mr Altmann argues that the new red tape for exports to the EU will stay permanently, unless the UK re-joins the customs union. The problems for British exporters are the complex rules of the EU customs border. The EU won’t change its rules for the UK as it operates its customs border with a lot of other countries. British exporters, he says, will have to adapt and deal with the new rules now or they simply won’t be able to sell to the EU anymore.
Re-joining the customs union may be a hard thing for the Brexiteers to swallow, but faced with constituents whose businesses may not survive without it may just prove persuasive.
Erasmus versus Turing
Another consequence of the Brexit deal has been the demise of the UK’s involvement in the Erasmus scheme which allows students to study abroad and broaden their horizons.
Boris Johnson initially promised that the UK would continue to be part of it. But Boris doesn’t really do promises, so he changed his mind after deciding he didn’t like what was on offer.
Despite benefiting from the elitism that comes from being an old Etonian, he says he wants to spread opportunities across the UK and sees his Erasmus replacement, named after the World War Two code-breaker Alan Turing, as just the thing to democratise student mobility.
The Scottish and Welsh governments and the Labour party have been highly critical of the new scheme, claiming, among other things that free tuition and travel expenses have been scrapped and the cost of living allowance has been slashed by a fifth.
Not so, says Michelle Donelan, UK minister for universities, who dismisses many of the claims as simply inaccurate. She says the Turing scheme will reach more students from disadvantaged backgrounds through enhanced support; that travel costs will be paid, and that participants will not have to pay additional tuition fees.
The narrow focus of Erasmus certainly has its supporters. In an article I wrote in January I mentioned Charlie Cadywould, a researcher at the international think tank Policy Network who, in a paper in March 2017, noted that Erasmus “has a real problem reaching people from deprived backgrounds, ethnic minorities, and those who don’t go to university.”
He’s now a senior policy adviser to the UK government who clearly share his view.
However, there are not many things on which the SNP and Labour parties agree, and their joint concern over the Turing scheme is unlikely to fade.
They have enlisted the support of 150 MEPs who wrote to Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for education in Brussels, and Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, asking if there was a way to extend Erasmus to Scotland and Wales.
Turing is initially funded for a year, allowing the UK government to tweak or scrap it. Unless, of course, the opposition gets its way, and like the customs union, we’re allowed back in to the original scheme.
Who will crack this one? That’s becoming something of an enigma.