Brexit trade checks will cost £330m a year. Starmer must revisit this disastrous deal | Simon Jenkins

Brexit trade checks will cost £330m a year. Starmer must revisit this disastrous deal | Simon Jenkins

The government is planning to increase the cost of doing business in Britain by a total of £330m a year.From the end of this month and again in April, it will start imposing a battery of border controls on agricultural trade with the EU. Fierce protests from farming and fishing interests have delayed these controls five times. But Rishi Sunak is frantic to show himself to be macho on Brexit. It is vital that Labour’s Keir Starmer steps forward and promises to rescind the controls immediately on taking office. The question is: does he have the guts?The controls come on top of the selective checks already imposed on British goods entering Europe. They beggar belief. Armies of (nonexistent) vets will have to certify meat and fish produce. Plants that are transported during their growing cycle will have to be inspected and tested to check for “biosecurity”. Warehouses and truck parks must be prepared, officials recruited and paperwork filed.The horticulture industry warned this week that it faced an “existential threat”. Flowers are time-sensitive to the hour. One Dutch exporter calculates that a petunia that is part-grown in the Netherlands and in Britain will need 59 steps of bureaucracy. It will be unlikely to survive. The shell-fishing industry, which also depends on speed of transport, is going through turmoil to see if it can continue exporting to Europe at all. Estimates of the cost of the new checks are scarcely believable: the government admitted last October it would be in the order of £330m a year, which will inevitably pass to the consumer in prices.Leaving an open continental market was always going to be high risk for an offshore island, especially when that market had spent four decades evolving specialisms and complex supply chains. Thatcher regarded Europe’s sophisticated trading zone as among her proudest achievements. Brexiters casually dismissed its benefits as being outweighed by the freedom from EU bureaucracy. Their bureaucracy is gargantuan in comparison. Leaving the single market was reckless and mendacious – and was not required by Brexit itself.Starmer has been indecisive and spineless on this subject. This is despite the well-attested fact that public opinion has turned against Brexit, and a majority of people think leaving the EU was the wrong decision. While sheer exhaustion might postpone the question of the UK returning to the EU, that need not apply to the customs unions and treaties that form Europe’s economic area.Labour is clearly averse to controversy and wants to keep the coming election campaign a festival of platitude. That should not prevent it from exploiting an area of policy that is now crucial to the cost of living. It certainly should not stop Starmer’s policy team preparing for what should be an early revision of Britain’s trading relations with Europe.The proposed new border regime promises to be a disaster for British agriculture and food supply, imposing a wholly unnecessary cost on food bills. That ministers are themselves running scared is shown by their having so often postponed the new regime. Starmer should now call for a further delay until after the election, and pledge an immediate review should he take power. It is hardly a wild demand. But has he the guts?

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