ALTHOUGH the most likely outcome is leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement, the whole prospect has been demonised to the point where no serious thought or consideration is given to it. I will deal with some of the misunderstandings that relate to it.
First, there is no likelihood of us leaving with no deal, for the simple reason that we have already agreed lots of mini-deals. We used to be warned that the planes would not fly. The EU then legislated that our planes would be able to fly over, land in and return from EU airports, if we reciprocate. We reciprocated; deal done.
Then we were told that our hauliers would not have enough licences to operate. The EU created extra licences, as long as we reciprocated. Deal done. Then we were told “That’s only going to apply up until the end of the year”. Quite true — because it is going to be followed by a better arrangement.
The EU also supported our renewed membership of the Common Transit Convention, which means that our hauliers and traders will not have to pay duty or complete customs declarations until they reach their destination. Another deal done.
We were told that we would not be able to export Airbus wings, because their safety certificates would not be recognised. The EU realised that the Airbus could not fly without wings, so it agreed to continue recognition of those and other aerospace component safety certificates.
We were told that there would be no visa arrangements between the EU and us,but, again, we have agreed reciprocally that there will be 90 days of visa-free travel with all members of the EU. So there will be a series of mini-deals. However, with those scares no longer available to frighten people, the language moved on to abstract adjectives such as “catastrophic”, “disastrous” and so on.
Most of the remaining specific fears, such as that there will be shortages of fresh food and medicines, or that just-in-time factories will have to close down, are based on the assumption that there will be disruption on the Dover-Calais crossing because traders will have to fill in customs declarations and pay tariffs.
These are just a few facts. First, customs declarations will be required whether we have a free trade agreement or not. Secondly, they are not checked at the border but by computer in Salford. They are made electronically. Likewise, tariffs are not paid and collected at the port. As the head of HMRC said, they are paid computer to computer.
Physical checks of cargos are carried out only if the algorithm in the computer at Salford shows that there is something suspicious about them, or if there is other intelligence information. Fewer than one per cent of consignments are subject to physical checks, and usually these are carried out away from the port, at the destination or point of origin. Almost all checks relate to suspected smuggling of tobacco, other excisable goods, drugs, arms or illegal immigrants. HMRC does not expect any more information leading to suspicion of such smuggling and does not expect to have to carry any more checks than it does at present.
The port of Dover has said that it is 100 per cent ready for Brexit. So there will not be any disruption in the flow coming through Dover. Fears all relate to what will happen if there are any delays at Calais. Calais has said that it is better prepared than Dover. It now has more than a dozen lanes for handling lorries, where previously it had only two. It has a smart border and two inspection posts away from the border to ensure that there is no congestion when checking animals and animal products. So it is unlikely that there will be any delays at Calais, either.
But if there were, what would happen? We know what would happen: we would have to activate Operation Stack. We have had to do that on more than 11 days a year on average for the last 20 years. In 2015, it was activated for 23 consecutive days; 7,000 lorries were stacked up on the M20 and had to wait for 35 hours. I simply ask those who threaten us with dire consequences if anything remotely like that were to happen again: do they recall anyone dying from a shortage of medicines? Do they recall any shortages of fresh food? There was certainly disruption of supplies of fresh food and of just-in-time production, but it did not lead to the closure of any factories.
So let us not have exaggeration but stick to the facts. Then we will be ready to face up to leaving with no withdrawal agreement and negotiating a free trade arrangement.
Lord Lilley is a former Trade and Industry Secretary. He spoke in a House of Lords debate on Brexit – this is an edited version.