Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Brexit Britain’s sewage filled seas

The European Directive 2006/7/EC concerning the management of the quality of bathing water requires the Member States of the European Union to monitor and classify the quality of bathing water, to manage the quality of this water and to inform the public.

However, since having left the EU, Britain has failed to apply strict controls concerning the monitoring or keeping in check the amount of raw sewage being pumped into the sea or rivers.

Even Stanley Johnson, father of the UK's prime Minister Boris, has blamed his own son's government, and Brexit as being part of the problem which saw dozens of UK beaches being closed in August after they were deemed unsafe for bathing.

Interviewed on LBC radio, Stanley Johnson said that without the "EU push" the UK government has not "pushed this thing as it should have."

In 2012, the European Commission took the UK to the European Court of Justice for breaching waste water regulations. The court gave the UK five years to rectify the situation.

Since voting to leave the EU in 2016, the UK has brought in the Environment Act, which was approved in November 2021, but not before an amendment to make reducing sewage discharges a legal requirement, and require water companies to take "all reasonable steps" to avoid using the overflows, was voted down by the government.

In 2020, just 17.2% of UK beaches were rated as "excellent quality" -- the lowest in Europe [Guardian]. All Cyprus' beaches made the grade, as did 97.1% of Greece's. France similarly scored highly with few beaches registering as being of poor quality.

Raw sewage discharge "should be exceptionally rare" but in the UK it is becoming an "increasing problem" according to a recent report by Sir Chris Whitty. 

Some locations are seeing "up to 200 discharges a year" the report states, which is "obviously unacceptable on public health grounds."

It's not only affecting beaches. Only 14% of UK rivers meet "good ecological standards," according to a 2021 report.

"No one expects river water to be of drinking standard, but where people swim or children play they should not expect significant doses of human [faeces]," reads Whitty's report.

Often, people don't realise what they're swimming in until, like some unfortunate swimmers, they become ill or take in a mouthful of excrement [Daily Star / Argus]. 

While the UK government has glossed over the issue or merely ignored it, the situation has clearly been exacerbated by Brexit. Lorry driver shortages brought about by many EU drivers leaving the UK has resulted in a shortage of chemicals needed to treat sewage [Guardian].

In addition a sell off of Britain's water utilities,  a failure to regulate them properly and a lack of investment has compounded the issue.

Water companies in the UK were privatised in 1989. There are now nine companies operating in England, seven of which were responsible for "an increase in serious incidents" last year. In EA ratings for 2021, four companies were given just two stars out of four, denoting the need for "significant improvement."

Old infrastructure and a lack of investment has also created problems. "We have quite an old sewage system that dates back to Victorian times, and waste water from homes and businesses is transported in the same pipes that collect rainwater," says Rachel Wyatt, policy and advocacy manager for the UK's Marine Conservation Society.

When there is significant rainfall, especially following a long dry spell, the water companies simply cannot cope and the result is increased discharges of sewage into the sea and rivers.

The effects are not only disastrous for marine life and the fishing industry, already hit hard by Brexit with increased red tape and tariffs in order to export their catch into the EU, but also the tourist industry.

Tourists, already put off by long queues at Britain's airports and ferry ports like Calais, may well think twice of heading to Britain [Independent]. After all, who wants to swim in sewage-filled seas?

Even if the situation improves in the short to medium term, the damage to Britain's reputation as a holiday destination may already be done. Certainly not one of the Brexit benefits lauded by Brexiteers.

Meanwhile Britain is now finding itself criticised not only by the Remain camp but also a number of French politicians who have written to the European Commission, accusing the UK of risking marine life by neglecting their environmental commitments [BBC/CNN].

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Sunday, August 07, 2022

There are no Brexit benefits

Despite what some might say there are no tangible Brexit benefits. For all the talk both before and since the referendum, all the promises by Vote Leave have come to nought, or merely did not exist in the first place.

Hard line Brexit supporters have often latched themselves to slogans such as 'Sovereignty', 'Freedom' and of 'Taking Back Control'. However these are essentially meaningless. Sovereignty can mean many different things, but essentially refers to one body ruling over a territory or territories. As a part of the EU Britain had the power to make its own laws, and was only constrained in terms of human rights and issues with trade.

There are many things that are illegal in the UK which are not the case elsewhere. In the Netherlands marijuana is decriminalised while the UK still adopts strict laws concerning its use. The age when one might consume alcohol is different in some EU states. In essence, each EU state, or country is already sovereign.

The slogan 'Taking Back Control' and 'Freedom' are similarly erroneous. It might be arguably true to say that as a country outside the EU, Britain could pursue its own trade deals. However none signed thus far have amounted to anything more than rollower deals that already existed with the EU, and in some cases have diminished Britain's position. Deals struck with both New Zealand and Australia for example are in fact likely to disadvantage UK farmers [NFU / Guardian / MeatManagement / Politico / NFU / Guardian].

Lost Freedoms

Ironically since Brexit the UK has not so much gained freedoms than lost them. While Brexiters hoped to 'Take Back Control' of its borders by restricting the numbers of those migrating to Britain, it has at the same time restricted the movement of its own citizens.

With the loss of Freedom of Movement, Britons can no longer easily move to any one of the EU member states to live and work. In addition, even holidaying in Europe is much more fraught. British Passport holders may now only visit the EU for a maximum of 90 days in any 180 days and must also have at least six months remaining on their passport.

This has also brought with it further problems since UK passports must now be stamped upon arriving and leaving the EU. It might seem like a small bureaucratic formality. However just a few seconds extra per traveller passing through border control can add up to considerable queues and delays.

This was apparent as major queues formed at Dover and Folkestone at the beginning of the summer holidays in what was the first major test of post Brexit rules. The pandemic had significantly reduced travel abroad in 2020 and 2021 so there had not been any clear impact Brexit might have. But with all COVID restrictions essentially removed, travel to Europe was once more on the cards.

Much of the right wing press and Brexit backing politicians blamed the lack of French border guards. But even a shortfall in staff numbers does not account for the delays of many hours experienced by many. At Dover there is only a finite amount of space and a limited number of booths. With each car having to stop and every passport checked and stamped, delays were bound to occur even with a full staff complement. Previously, even while not being in the Schengen area, British passport holders were simply waved through by the French. Indeed while the French border officials would just wave you through, British border officials would always stop you and check passports.

So much for taking back control.

And the holiday tailbacks are only the half of it. Since the transition period ended lorry queues towards Dover and Folkestone have been a daily occurrence, though little reported since they first began in January this year.

Red tape

Last year's lorry queues were blamed on COVID, since anyone travelling to mainland Europe needed to provide negative COVID test results. But since restrictions were dropped the queues are entirely down to Brexit with exporters required to provide, sometimes extensive as well as costly, customs paperwork.

The mountain of paperwork, as well as the cost, has put many small businesses off from selling into Europe. For some it is simply not cost effective. For others it has made their business uncompetitive with European rivals.

This has affected everything from the fishing industry through agriculture and beyond. And while Brexiters had claimed that life outside the EU would open up markets further afield, for many industries this would not be practical nor profital.

Live shellfish cannot, for example, be shipped great distances. And due to Britain now being out of the single market and customs union, companies that once easily sold their produce to the likes of France may no longer do so under EU rules which ban the import of live shellfish from non-EU countries.

It could be thought of by some as the EU being spiteful. But the rules were there before Brexit and applied to other third countries. Deciding to become a third country meant many EU regulations would result in losing control concerning many things.

While new rules concerning free roaming within the EU only came into effect in 2017 it had been much talked about even before the referendum. And many Brits abroad took advantage in the three years before the pandemic. But now many mobile providers have dropped free roaming throughout the EU. Some like O2 are maintaining a service for new customers, but those on other networks risk losing the benefit should they change contracts.

The blame game

Brexit supporters are quick to blame everything but Brexit. Dover queues; the fault of the French. Supply chain breakdowns resulting in empty supermarket shelves; 'EU red tape'. The October 2021 fuel shortages; panic buying. A slowing economy; COVID pandemic and the ongoing Ukraine war.

But while there is a small amount of truth in these excuses, a significant part of these problems have been down to Brexit. Dover queues were in part down to a shortage of French customs officials, but much was to do with extra bureaucracy now required.  

So-called 'EU red tape' applies to all third countries. Thus slow supply lines and breakdown of delivery have been in part to extra paperwork, customs declarations and checks.

Supply chain issues have also been hit by a shortage of HGV drivers. Many European lorry drivers returned home after Brexit and the numbers increased during the pandemic. But with increased regulations post-Brexit few have returned. This has resulted in shortgages on the shelves but also affected fuel distribution.

Certainly some of these issues have eased as more lorry drivers get trained or get redeployed, but the situation is far from stable and could break again at any time.

COVID has undoubtedly had a massive impact on the economy. But to entirely blame the pandemic for Britain's ailing economy is ignoring several things. The pandemic was not confined only to the UK. COVID-19 swept around the globe and affected small and large economies alike. But some have fared better than others.

Those that controlled the spread, such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, have economies that remain buoyant. Those that failed to mitigate the spread so well have fared less well economically.

The US has been hit economically due to COVID. So too has Europe. But the UK has made recovery all the more difficult having essentially imposed sanctions upon itself by cutting itself off from its biggest trading block, that being the EU.

The Ukraine war is of course a factor in recent months, and is undoubtedly hitting the European economies too. But the UK's economy is being hit far harder.

The only major difference is that the UK has pulled out of a major trading block. It is even more difficult to trade with the rest of the world both in terms of cost, with fuel now at a premium, but also ecologically.

'Global Britain'

It might be fanciful to speak of 'Global Britain', but globalism essentially uses more fuel to move things around. Where is the sense of shipping lamb or butter from New Zealand when most lamb up til now was English or Welsh, and most butter consumed in the UK is home produced or is imported from Ireland, France and Denmark.

COP26 seems almost a distant memory and perhaps achieved little other than supposedly focusing minds on the need to cut emissions. Yet moving from a local market - the EU - and replacing it or at least increasing a global market, is only going to increase Britain's carbon footprint.

Indeed it is hard to square 'Global Britain' with the claim that Britain wants to reduce its carbon footprint.

Cost to the economy

There has been a deafening silence over Brexit's economic fallout. Back in 2016 many warned that Brexit might well lead to a recession, something that was dismissed as project fear.

It did not happen immediately since, of course, Brexit did not happen overnight. A withdrawal agreement had to be drawn up and agreed upon. This process itself took over three years before Boris Johnson's 'Oven Ready Deal' was finally signed. But even then there was a transition period meaning that Brexit did not actually happen until 1st January 2021. However, the pandemic hid many effects of Brexit such as the free movement of goods and people wanting to holiday abroad.

The pandemic also slowed the economy in that under lockdowns and restrictions people spent less, lifestyles changed and jobs with it.

But beneath the mask of COVID, Brexit was still bubbling away.

'End of the pandemic'

While it is debatable that the pandemic is far from over, restrictions were lifted in much of the western world in the early part of 2022.

As a result, life for many has returned to 'normal'. As such many problems connected with having left the EU have begun to surface.

As already discussed, problems at the border and issues concerning imports and exports have already shown themselves.

But there have also been economic repercussions. Many of these issues have to do with having left the single market.

In June Boris Johnson warned his MPs not to get into "some hellish, Groundhog Day debate about the merits of belonging to the single market". Brexit, he claimed, was settled.

But Brexit still hung like a cloud over Britain's fragile economy.

'Make Brexit Work'

Johnson may not have wanted his party relitigating Brexit but neither did Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour party, who is now running with the slogan of "make Brexit work". Perpetual motion machine, Brexit will never work.

Like a Newton's cradle may give the illusion that it will continue in perpetuity, Brexit will need constant interaction to kick it back into action.

Both main parties ignore the elephant in the room, refusing to acknowledge that it is Britain's leaving the EU, or more specifically the single market and customs union, that is devastating the economy.

Even Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England who replaced Mark Carney and who repeatedly warned of the risk to the economy due to Brexit, as well as Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, would rather talk about something else. Brexit has become the great British taboo.

Six years after the referendum and a little over a year since the transition period ended economists are beginning to quantify the damage caused by the erection of trade barriers with Britain's biggest market, separating the "Brexit effect" from the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Damage far from over

Many conclude that the damage is real and it is not over yet.

The UK is lagging behind the rest of the G7 in terms of trade recovery after the pandemic. Business investment, seen by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak as the panacea to a poor growth rate, trails other industrialised countries, in spite of lavish Treasury tax breaks to try to drive it up.

Next year, according to the OECD think-tank, the UK will have the lowest growth in the G20, apart from sanctioned Russia.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, the official British forecaster, has seen no reason to change its prediction, first made in March 2020, that Brexit would ultimately reduce productivity and UK gross domestic product by 4% compared with a world where the country remained inside the EU. Moreover the OBR says that a little over half of that damage has yet to occur.

Such a level of decline, worth about £100bn a year in lost output, would result in lost revenues for the Treasury of roughly £40bn a year. That is £40bn that might have been available to the beleaguered Johnson administration for the radical tax cuts demanded by the Tory right — the equivalent of 6p off the 20p in the pound basic rate of income tax.

Despite the evidence of Brexit-induced economic self-harm piling up few are talking about reversing Brexit altogether. Neither is anyone talking about softening the edges, such as rejoining the single market.

Dogmatism over pragmatism

It need not have been like this. While ardent Remainers loathed the very idea of leaving the EU at all and would have happily ignored the referendum result, Britain could have left the EU and yet still have remained within the single market and customs union. Indeed there were many options Britain could have followed such as remaining a part of EFTA or the EEA or even negotiating a position such as Andorra which is outside the EU but maintains a customs union with the EU. But the Conservative party, firstly under Theresa May, and subsequently Boris Johnson, followed a path resulting in the hardest Brexit short of reverting to WTO rules.

Of course the government at the time could have ignored the referendum altogether, citing the fact that it wasn't legally binding and that to follow through with such a narrow majority of 52% was not in the country's economic interests. But Brexit was in the interest of the Tory party, satisfying the Euroskeptics in the party as well as allowing the Conservatives to take greater control of the population particularly by locking the doors and preventing easy emigration for millions.

Heading for recession

Downing Street insisted in late June that it was "too early to pass judgement" on whether Brexit was having a negative impact on the economy, which could be heading into a recession. "The opportunities Brexit provides will be a boon to the UK economy in the long run," Johnson's spokesman said.

However in the first week of August the Bank of England's Andrew Bailey raised interest rates by 0.5% to 1.75%, the biggest rise in some 25 years. Bailey also forecast that the UK will fall into recession this year, with the longest downturn since 2008 predicted.

This is hardly one of the "benefits of Brexit" hailed by the Johnson administration.

Claimed Brexit benefits

Indeed many so-called Brexit benefits could have been done without having left the EU. Such as Johnson's patriotic promise to put a "crown stamp" on pint glasses in pubs and to allow traders to sell their wares in pounds and ounces. Johnson's persistent claim that the UK's early approval and rollout of a COVID vaccine could not be done outside the EU is also misleading and essentially untrue. Firstly the UK was still in a transition phase and so had not formally left. Furthermore each state within the EU can independently approve and rollout such treatments. Hungary for instance approved Sputnik V, the Russian COVID vaccine. 

Until the Brexit transition period ended on 31st December 2020, vaccines in the UK were supposed to be authorised via the European Medicines Agency (EMA). However, since 2012, the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had been free, under the regulation 174, to give temporary approval to an unlicensed medicinal product in the case of certain types of public health threat, such as a pandemic [Full Fact / Ch4News].

Even Britain's new blue passport could have been blue prior to leaving the EU. In fact there is no stipulation within European law or international convention concerning the colour of a passport, though most tend to be dark colours and most are either burgundy, blue, green or black.

The colour change has instead only come to represent the loss of power the British passport now possesses. In 2010 the British passport was ranked as the most powerful in the world, and according to some reports had plummeted to 13th place [Telegraph]. According to the Henley Global ranking it had only slid to 6th place [City AM]. The actual position is somewhat moot. The crux of the matter is the strength of the UK passport has diminished since Brexit.

Britons also face more red-tape next year as the EU introduces ETIAS [European Travel Information and Authorization System]. The Visa scheme requires all visitors from non-EU countries to pre-register and submit photos and four fingerprints in the form of biometric data. There will all also be a charge of around €7 for the three-year permit.

While the scheme will potentially speed up entry to the EU, since stamps will no longer be required, some Brexiters labelled it 'sinister' as the EU collects such data on individuals, though many countries already collect such data such as South Korea, China et al. Without stamps it may also create issues for some travellers as there will be no obvious record concerning how many days one has used up of the allowed 90 days in each 180.  

Brexit policy

Critics of the government's Brexit policy are routinely derided. Suella Braverman, attorney-general, accused the ITV presenter Robert Peston of "Remainiac make-believe" after he challenged her over the government's unilateral plan to rip up the Brexit treaty relating to Northern Ireland. Braverman claimed the so-called Northern Ireland protocol had left the region "lagging behind the rest of the UK". In fact, Northern Ireland - the only area of the UK to remain in the EU's single market for goods in order to keep intact the Good Friday Agreement - is the best performing part of the country, apart from London.

When Bailey appeared before the House of Commons treasury committee in mid-May, the BoE governor acknowledged that his predecessor Mark Carney had made himself "unpopular" for saying Brexit would have a negative effect on trade, but that the bank held to that view.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost. While some gloomy predictions failed to materialise, such as former chancellor George Osborne's 2016 warning of a recession immediately after a Leave vote, there is growing evidence that Brexit is causing more lasting damage to UK economic prospects. And this last week Bailey predicted that recession was indeed around the corner.

Ailing economy

The first and most obvious economic blow delivered by Brexit came when sterling fell almost 10% after the referendum in June 2016, against currencies that match the UK's pattern of imports. It did not, and still has not recovered. This sharp depreciation was not followed by a boom in exports as UK goods and services became cheaper on global markets, but it did raise the price of imports and pushed up inflation.

By June 2018, a team of academic economists at the Centre for Economic Policy Research calculated that there had been a Brexit inflation effect, raising consumer prices by 2.9%, with no corresponding increase in wages.

While the UK was still in the EU and during the Brexit "transition phase", there were no significant effects on trade flows. But this has changed since stricter border controls were introduced at the start of 2021, imposing no tariffs, but significant checks and controls at the formerly frictionless border.

Food prices have risen as a result of Brexit. Comparing the prices of imported food such as pork, tomatoes and jam, which predominantly came from the EU, with those that came from further afield such as tuna and pineapples, there has been a substantial Brexit effect. "Brexit increased average food prices by about 6 per cent over 2020 and 2021," according to a team of academic economists at the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Summing up the effects on trade in which imports from the EU have fallen while exports have not risen, Adam Posen, head of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, says "everybody else sees a recovery in trade following COVID and the UK sits flat".

Another visible effect of Brexit on the UK economy has been in discouraging business investment. In the first quarter of 2022, real business investment was 9.4% lower than in the second quarter of 2016. That fall was mostly due to COVID, but it had flatlined since the referendum, ending a period of growth since 2010 and falling well short of the performance of other G7 countries.

Before departing the BoE in 2020, Carney told a House of Lords Committee that Brexit uncertainty was holding back business investment. Worse, he said, business planning for various Brexit scenarios was taking up a lot of management effort. "Time spent on contingency planning is time not spent on strategic initiatives," he said.

Unhappiness about high immigration was one of the most contentious issues of the referendum, with a central promise of the Brexit campaign being tougher controls over the number of people entering the country. While net immigration from EU countries has stopped, with effectively no change apparent in the two years to the end of June 2021, net immigration from non-EU countries has remained high, with 250,000 in the latest year.

There is, as yet, little appetite among Britain's political leaders for a return to the EU — even if the other 27 member states were prepared to open the door. Even the pro-EU Liberal Democrats admit reversing course is a long-term aspiration, rather than an immediate goal. And this has left many Remainers, or Rejoiners, somewhat politically disenfranchised.

While there isn't an exodus, there are many pro-Europeans looking for a way out. Those with enough financial resources, language skills and willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoops are seeking to relocate in Europe. Portugal in particular offers hope to some in that the D7 visa sets a low bar for those wanting to live in the country with the option to later acquire citizenship. Introduced in 2007 by the Portuguese government, the D7 visa allows non-EU/EEA/Swiss citizens to apply for temporary residency in Portugal. It is used to obtain a permanent residency permit and eventually citizenship.

Collateral damage

 Far from Brexit benefits there has only been collateral damage. As part of his attempt to avert a coup, Johnson wrote to MPs in June to say that he had "created a new and friendly relationship with the EU". The opposite is true. Brussels in fact had restarted legal action against the UK over the Northern Ireland protocol and EU relations are at rock bottom.

The EU has warned that British scientists will be excluded from the €95bn Horizon research programme as "collateral damage" in the row about Northern Ireland. The prospect of any kind of rapprochement seems remote even as Johnson leaves office to likely be replaced by Liz Truss.

There has been some commentary from the right that perhaps Brexit isn't going swimmingly. The pro-Leave Times columnist Iain Martin recently wrote, "To deny the downsides of Brexit on trade with the EU is to deny reality."

Meanwhile, Tobias Ellwood, a former Tory defence minister, suggested Britain should rejoin the EU single market to soften the cost of living crisis, said there was "an appetite" for a rethink and claimed polling indicated "this is not the Brexit most people imagined". And Daniel Hannan, a leading Tory Brexiter, repeated his longstanding view that Britain should have stayed in the single market under a Norway-style relationship with the EU, but adding that to rejoin it now "would be madness".

Such commentary is of course ignored or criticised by the mostly right-wing press.

On the left things aren't much better. Anna McMorrin, Labour's shadow minister, was recorded telling activists, "I hope eventually that we will get back into the single market and customs union." However, she was forced to apologise by Starmer

Labour's "make Brexit work" mantra does not bode well for pro-Europeans.

In the months following the Brexit vote Adam Posen made a long dissection of what leaving would mean. But is summary he said,  

There were "no economic upsides" to Brexit, "only considerable downsides" pointing particularly at the law of gravity in terms of economics and trade https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcIkIz98zXU

So there are no Brexit benefits, only disadvantages.

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