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Sunday, October 24, 2021

‘Only yourselves to blame’: UK’s shortages seen from abroad

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Government ministers may insist it is “wrong” to blame Brexit for Britain’s fuel, food and labour shortages, but for the rest of Europe – and beyond – there is only one reason why the UK’s crisis is so very much worse than anywhere else’s.

“One is tempted to tell the British: ‘You have only yourselves to blame,’” said Gabi Kostorz on ARD’s Tagesthemen, a leading German news show. “We tried to talk you out of it, but you decided otherwise. Now you have to face the consequences.”

Der Spiegel agreed, saying the UK had left the EU “to ‘regain control’” but now, when the promised post-pandemic economic upswing should be beginning, seemed to be experiencing “the exact opposite: an unprecedented loss of control.”

Perhaps the sharpest outside view of Britain’s woes came, however, in a New Yorker cartoon. “The shortages are all British made and British owned,” Boris Johnson is shown as saying. “And that’s something we can be incredibly proud of.”

Britain was suffering more than most from global supply chain problems mainly because EU workers had left and strict Brexit immigration rules meant no more could now come in, Der Spiegel said, creating labour shortages “everywhere where the work is hard, dirty and poorly paid”.

Economically isolated, the country faces “an autumn of discontent for which Brexit is not the only reason, but a key one”, it said. “The government, however, insists none of this has anything to do with leaving the EU, sticking defiantly to its Brexit success story – even if its statements are getting more and more bizarre.”

ARD’s Kostorz concurred. Oddly, she said, for the British government Brexit “is just not among the possible causes. It’s ‘Don’t mention the B word.’” For ministers and for much of the media, “responsibility lies anywhere but with themselves”.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung also agreed the most evident shortage – of 100,000 HGV drivers – was not solely a consequence of Brexit. But by introducing a short-term visa scheme for foreign drivers, it said, the government had “basically admitted that exiting the EU was a decisive factor in the supply crisis”.

Moreover, it would never work. “Why would a Romanian or Bulgarian truck driver come to the UK? They are also wanted in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere,” the paper asked, describing the expectation that “cheap labour from eastern Europe will save Christmas at the push of a button, and then disappear again” as “shameful”.

Boris Johnson’s bet, the paper said, was that Brexit would show Britain was “in control of its borders” and that wages would rise. But if Britons cannot fill up their cars or roast a Christmas turkey, he “will have to find an answer to the question of why there are no shortages in France or Germany”.

It would be wrong, the New York Times also insisted, to blame a global crisis solely on Brexit. But, it said, there were “Brexit-specific causes that are indisputable”. This was not, it added, the first trade disruption to hit Britain since it left the single market – remember the shellfish producers? – but it was “the first post-Brexit crisis that has not been masked by the effects of the coronavirus”.

Significantly, it was also “geographically selective”, with no reports of panic buying in Northern Ireland, which has an open border with an EU member state. Nonetheless, “the Brexiteers invariably find other culprits for bad news”, the paper said, and much of the UK media were more concerned by “the government’s competence in dealing with the crisis” than the “structural hurdles imposed by Britain’s new status”.

CNN’s analysis was also that Britain was suffering much more than most countries “because of Brexit – or specifically, the form of Brexit pursued by the UK government, which introduced stringent immigration policies and took Britain out the EU market for goods, making it much harder for British companies to hire EU workers and much more costly for them to do business with the UK’s single biggest trading partner”.

It did not have to be this way, the US broadcaster said: “Worker shortages, for example, were not an inevitable outcome of Brexit. But the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system was designed to reduce the numbers of unskilled workers coming to Britain.” Unfortunately, “over four decades of EU membership, many sectors had come to rely on a steady inflow of labour”.

Spain’s El País highlighted the absurdity of the government’s “reluctance to accept that Brexit has anything to do with the fuel crisis”, while simultaneously offering temporary visas to the very workers Brexit prevents from returning; and the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant said that for many, the whole sorry situation showed the “madness of stepping out of the single market, with its free movement of goods and people”.

In France, Le Monde blamed a recent sharp deterioration in Anglo-French relations – over fishing rights, and the Aukus security pact – squarely on the British government’s fast-growing, self-inflicted and largely Brexit-induced problems.

“To conceal his own difficulties, the British prime minister is multiplying his attacks on Paris … as part of an attempt to justify the UK’s divorce from the EU and underline its alleged benefits,” the paper said. “And he is not short of domestic problems.”

Due mainly to the “nationalist retreat of Brexit, which denies visas to EU workers, the shortage of truck drivers is hitting the supply of petrol stations and supermarkets”, it said. “The PM, trapped by the isolation Britain voted for in 2016 but which he has exacerbated by his chaotic short-termism, is looking for scapegoats.”

Libération agreed: “Hundreds of thousands of drivers, farmhands, waiters, plumbers and even doctors working in Britain on non-EU passports have left, with no intention of returning,” it said in an editorial. “The shortages are getting worse week by week.”

So should France accede to Johnson’s request earlier this month to “donnez-moi un break”? “Go boil an egg, Boris,” Libération replied, a French expression meaning “leave me alone”. At least, “if you can find any eggs in the local supermarket”.

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