REMEMBER Project Fear? Leave the EU without a deal, we kept being told, and we would face cataclysm.
There would be 17-mile traffic jams at Dover. Supermarket shelves would be empty. Hospitals would run out of medicine. And, according to one Remain-supporting businessman, we would even end up with riots on the streets.
Many Remainers are trying their hardest to resurrect their predictions of chaos, but it is an uphill struggle.
This week, two people who know rather a lot about the movement of goods across the Channel — the chief of the Port of Calais and Lord Wolfson, chief executive of clothing chain Next — have scorned the idea that trade between Britain and the EU will grind to a halt if, as seems increasingly likely, we leave with No Deal on October 31.
It is especially significant in Lord Wolfson’s case because, a year ago, he admitted to being worried about the consequences of No Deal.
But since Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May, he says, the Government has made it clear it is making very serious preparations.
There is now no reason to fear gridlock, empty shelves or any other serious problem.
Wolfson cited two measures in particular which have made a difference.
The Government has announced transitional arrangements which will mean that, for 12 months at least, lorry drivers will not have to fill in forms at the border.
Ministers have also published a “tariff card”, showing importers exactly what duties they will have to pay in the event of a No Deal Brexit.
That has allowed them to plan ahead and decide if they need to adjust their prices.
In the worst case scenario Lord Wolfson now expects “mild disruption”. Yet it might not even come to that.
ON HER KNEES
Now that the EU can see Britain is serious about walking away from negotiations, it has every incentive to agree a deal with us — this time one which the House of Commons can enthusiastically approve.
We might have been to this point much sooner, of course, had May been serious when she set out her Brexit plans in January 2017 that “No Deal is better than a bad deal”.
Over the months, however, she seemed to lose confidence, to the point she was so frightened of a No Deal outcome that she was virtually going on her knees to Brussels.
The EU duly obliged by offering the very worst deal — one which, through the devious device of the Irish backstop, could have left us in a permanent state of limbo, beholden to EU rules in which we had no say.
Under May’s premiership, Wolfson said yesterday, there was almost a “wilful attempt not to prepare for No Deal”.
As a result, we got to our original leaving date, March 29, with businesses still having little idea of what lay ahead.
Of course there are frustrated Remainers who won’t take it from Lord Wolfson that there is no longer any reason to fear No Deal — given that he campaigned for Brexit.
But they will find it harder to ignore Jean-Marc Puissesseau, President of the combined ports of Calais and Boulogne.
He has a very simple way to describe the continued efforts of Remainers to try to predict disaster: “C’est la bulls**t.” As he put it perfectly: “There are certain individuals in the UK who are whipping up this catastrophism for their own reasons.”
Lorries travelling between France and Britain already face customs checks, as Britain never joined the Schengen area — which abolished customs formalities at most EU borders.
As for the extra paperwork regarding tariffs, French ports and the hauliers which use them are well prepared.
“If we find some with the wrong paperwork in the first days,” Puissesseau added, “we’ll tell them you are bad boys, don’t do it again.”
So much for the image of vast tailbacks as lorry drivers and officials argue over rules.
Of course, the French authorities only control half the cross-Channel operation — the rest is run by British port authorities and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
True, it was the port of Dover which first raised the spectre of 17-mile tailbacks on the M20. But in many ways our ports will have the easier job — 30 per cent of lorries travelling from Britain to France are empty and will require no paperwork.
That so many lorries travel back to other EU countries is a sign of the imbalance of trade in goods which exists between Britain and the rest of the EU — a huge £64billion trade gap last year.
Because EU exporters have the most to lose in the event of No Deal, there is every reason to hope that common sense will prevail and some sort of deal — even if just a temporary trade deal — will be completed in time for October 31.
But if not, we needn’t be too bothered about the threat of tailbacks and still less about the threat of empty shelves. Supermarkets have, after all, coped with disruption before, such as during a strike by Calais port workers in 2015 which really did lead to long traffic jams on the M20.
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There are Remainers who would love chaos, simply for the joy of being proved right. But in the event, Project Fear is likely to have to opposite effect.
Many people will make a special effort to avoid Channel ports on October 31 and will have stocked up their freezers in advance so that they will have no need to go shopping.
Don’t be surprised if, come October 31, we end up with pictures of yawning customs officials and under-employed supermarket checkout staff asking: Where is everyone?
- Ross Clark is a columnist for The Spectator.
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