Britain is to recruit 50,000 more customs agents, to handle post-Brexit trade according to a report in the Financial Times yesterday, at a cost to industry of at least £1.5 billion a year. The announcement of plans to build an academy in Kent to train the agents was made by Michael Gove.
But as Jean Claude Piris, a French diplomat and director-general of the EU Legal Service, pointed out on Twitter, this is more than the entire 33,000-employee payroll of the European Commission in Brussels.
The irony is that while bureaucrats in Brussels are engaged in reducing or eliminating border friction by harmonising standards across the bloc or negotiating free trade agreements, Britain’s army of customs agents will become border friction made flesh. They will be metaphorically shovelling sand into our own engine of international trade.
The report was met with wry amusement in Europe. Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit representative of the European parliament, was quick to point out that Brexit was supposed to lead to a reduction in red tape.
Currently, around 50 million customs declarations are filled out annually for our trade with the rest of the world. The Road Haulage Association estimates that even under a Canada-style trade deal between the EU and UK, which would eliminate most tariffs but still involve customs declarations, an additional 200 million forms could be generated each year.
It is a sobering reminder of the bizarre world we will enter in 2021. Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the EU until fired by Theresa May, put it succinctly in a speech in Glasgow last November when he said:
Margaret Thatcher and her emissary Lord Cockfield, often thought of as the driving force behind the single market, will be turning in their graves. The single market, which was completed at the end of 1992, has been referred to as the “greatest bonfire of red tape in human history“. Now a new bonfire is being built. A bonfire that a future, less ideological and more enlightened British government will have to put a torch to.
In 2016, immediately after the referendum, Nick Cohen wrote an excoriating piece about Johnson and Gove in which he said:
“The media do not damn themselves, so I am speaking out of turn when I say that if you think rule by professional politicians is bad wait until journalist politicians take over. Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game.”
We are now discovering what government by journalists looks like.