Michael Gove and Boris Johnson have now said that the UK should leave the Single Market, as well as quitting the EU. They should be careful what they wish for – perhaps in their times as reporters, columnists or career politicians, they have never experienced the realities of sending goods in and out of the UK. Leaving the Single Market will again mean Customs controls at the borders between the UK and the EU, which were abolished in 1993 after implementation of the Single European Act. Customs controls between the UK and its nearest neighbours in the EU would also be inescapable, if the UK starts to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries further afield.
The interminable queues at Customs, especially of lorries waiting for customs clearance, before customs controls were abolished at borders within the EU in 1993, are now a distant memory. When we moved our household goods from Germany to the UK in 1988, the removals lorry team took an extra several hours to clear Customs in Dover, because we had unnecessarily ticked a certain box on our Customs declaration – although the team on the lorry might not have minded getting paid for waiting around, someone had to pay for those few unproductive person-days. And in my younger days in Northern Ireland I remember queues of lorries waiting for clearance at the border – but now, a delivery van can cross the border without Customs checks several times a day. Leaving the Single Market – promoted at great effort by Margaret Thatcher, in the Single European Act of 1985 – will come at a great cost. It will mean queues of lorries at UK/EU borders, in both directions, at Dover, Calais, Newry and Dundalk, and substantial additional costs, delays and inconvenience for importers and exporters. Where people rely on frequent and seamless UK/EU shipments, these costs will often become prohibitive, leading to a real reduction of commerce and increased costs in all walks of life.
The effects will not be confined to physical queues at the border – other effects may be less visible, but still very real and costly. In the research lab that I lead at Cambridge, many of the materials that we source routinely now come from other EU countries. The process of ordering these, and ensuring compliance with VAT and other regulatory formalities, now works so seamlessly that we barely notice where we order from and where they are shipped from. We can simply choose the best supplier based on price, quality, service, and our needs.
In contrast, I recently ordered a small item of equipment from the USA – and this was far from seamless. The supplier would not accept a purchase order from outside their home market and had no UK distributor, so I had to pay up front on my personal credit card. I had to tell them the name of a shipping agent familiar with reams of customs and import procedures – with this additional service no doubt reflected in the shipping price. After the equipment landed in the UK, I had to provide further details via the shipping agent to UK Customs. Even then the equipment was not shipped to me – but instead only a postcard telling me how much VAT and import duty to pay online before the goods could be released and complete their journey to me. On other occasions, US suppliers may forget to include the VAT exemption certificate that we send them (for goods for medical research), or Customs may overlook it and still charge us anyway, or may ask for further information before releasing the shipment – all resulting in delivery delays, and time-consuming processes to reclaim any wrongly paid VAT.
These costs and frustrations will also return for shipments between the UK and the EU if we leave the Single Market, as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson now want. And they will return for shipments in both directions, affecting both importers and exporters, and all of us who depend on imports and exports. Is this really what they want? If so, can they please tell us? If they succeed in reversing the achievements of the Single Market, in which even their mentor Margaret Thatcher invested so much effort, we will all have an enormous and very long-term cost to pay.