In numerous areas, the solutions are already there to cope with a no-deal scenario

In numerous areas, the solutions are already there to cope with a no-deal scenario

‘No-deal’ may be coming.

That’s been the view of a great many commentators since at least the publishing of the draft Withdrawal Agreement in November, and especially since the Government’s defeat on the meaningful vote last month.

Last week it was the turn of Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, to state the possibility: “There is a very high risk of a crash out not by design, but by accident.”

Given that risk, what do we actually know about no-deal?

There’s been a lot of waffle on the subject. Predictions have ranged from a 1920s-style recession and civil unrest at the one end, to an equally specious vision of ‘sunlit uplands’ and painless transition under Article 24 of the GATT at the other. Fortunately, my colleagues at the IEA have looked at key claims focused on the delays at ports, aviation and the availability of medicines, as well on other issues such as the Irish Single Electricity Market and the return of mobile roaming charges. Today, they’re tackling fears around food supply.

The above briefings may not cover every aspect of Brexit, nor the broader macroeconomic picture as painted by Whitehall forecasts, but a clear pattern does emerge. Although there are genuine issues associated with ‘no-deal’, when looked at in detail, many of the issues are less intractable than they might seem.

Take the risks around ports and ‘just-in-time’ supply chains. The fear here is that delays at ports, arising from either checks on regulatory compliance or additional customs paperwork, cause sufficient delays to shut down the Dover-Calais crossing. Dover handles roughly 17% of UK goods trade, processing 10,000 vehicles a day. 99% of these originate in the EU (including the UK) and are processed in around two minutes each. Checks on lorries from outside the EU take an average of 20 minutes. The Freight Transport Association stated in 2017 that an additional 2-minute delay per lorry could cause a 17-mile queue on either side of the Channel.

However, there are several reasons to believe that this scenario need not occur. The key is that none of those with a stake in what goes on in Dover-Calais want it. The worst-case scenario is what occurs in the absence of any anticipation or mitigatory action.

But these problems have been anticipated and action is being taken.

See the multiple statements by Xavier Bertrand, the President of the Hauts-de-France region. For a 2-minute delay to occur on average, roughly 10% of lorries would need to be subject to 20 minutes of extra-EU checks. However, the UK only checks 4% of extra-EU shipments and the Republic of Ireland only 1%. Incidentally, this 1% check rate is what officials at Calais have suggested for UK traffic.

The normal riposte to these claims is that the EU still requires ‘SPS’ checks on 100% of consignments of food products for human consumption, as well as checks on animal feed and other animal produce. But these checks do not take place at the border. In the case of Calais, the inspection point is 12 km from the port and so vehicles exit the port to be checked without causing additional delays.

This scenario is illustrative of many of the risks of ‘no-deal’. Big problems like the continued availability of medicines break down into smaller problems such as agreement on conformity assessment and obtaining Marketing Authorisations. These can often be solved by unilateral action on the UK’s part (we have already committed to recognise EEA approved medication) and sensible steps by firms.

Many of these steps have already been taken. Often players on the EU side face similar incentives to make reasonable arrangements (e.g. the EU extending existing road haulage arrangements in the event of ‘no-deal’). Even the seemingly intractable ‘Irish border question’ is, in reality, a selection of smaller technical issues which on their own are far from insoluble.

Unfortunately, forecasters predicting doom and gloom are unable to accurately account for firms and officials adjusting. Their models are insufficiently ‘granular’ as they simply don’t have the necessary information. Often, neither does government. But the small firms that have to cope with these problems, those with real ‘skin in the game’, do. Make no mistake, adjusting is still costly, both for firms and ultimately consumers, but these costs are lower than the disaster headlines would suggest. Just as importantly, they can be spread out over time.

The truth is that ‘no deal’ is broad and wide ranging enough that no-one knows precisely what will happen, including us. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a disaster. If firms and local officials know what they’re facing, they can be flexible and use their ingenuity to find solutions. Politicians would be well served to trust credentialed experts less, and our economy’s real problem solvers more.