Anarchy in the U.K.
Brexit ‘preppers’ brace for a no-deal nightmare in Britain
the cupboards of jo elgarf’s london home are bursting with provisions. Dried foods, tinned meat, coffee, powdered milk, even detergent. “Anything that has a long shelf life,” she says.
The hoarding began a few months ago as British negotiators struggled to settle on the terms of the country’s impending divorce from the European Union. Tabloids blared the prospect of a “no-deal Brexit,” and doomsday scenarios quickly followed: gridlocked border crossings, strangled supply lines, grounded flights. The pound, analysts predicted, would likely tumble while food and medicine stocks thinned and Brits faced a host of new immigration restrictions. Elgarf, a 42-year-old mother of two, found herself stockpiling nonperishable goods and imported products.
And she’s far from alone. Elgarf moderates a Facebook group called 48% Preppers—a reference to the proportion of voters who opted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. It now has more than 1,900 members, a third of whom joined within the past month. “I am just an average woman, with an average family, with a little understanding of Brexit. I am not one to panic,” says Elgarf. “But I do not trust our government to prepare.”
More than two years ago, proleave campaigners made grand promises of a liberated Britain, free to establish lucrative trade agreements all over the world without European hindrance, while reinvesting in the much-loved National Health Service.
The reality, however, has been far more complicated. While Prime Minister Theresa May has managed to strike an agreement with EU leaders, the future of the controversial exit plan is far from certain. Two Cabinet ministers have resigned in opposition, including Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, and Parliament, which must approve the deal, remains skeptical and deeply divided. Now, with a looming deadline, Britons are bracing for what political insiders call a “cliff edge” departure: crashing out of the bloc with no transition period and no measures to ease the shift from decades of EU law. Britain would—at least in the short term—be withdrawing from Europe and the world. A no-deal Brexit could leave the island nation alone under a blockade of its own making.
The rights and futures of Europeans in the U.K. and Brits on the Continent would immediately be thrown into doubt, and a range of financial hurdles would appear, from increased credit card fees for shoppers to a freeze on cross-border operations for multinational banks. The government is considering canceling all leave for police officers in case of civil disturbances, and the army has been put on standby to
help distribute food, medical and fuel supplies if required. The official line: better to be prepared for the unthinkable than not.
To be sure, the formal exit on March 29 is four months away, and May has until the end of the year to finalize an agreement with the EU. But analysts say that satisfying competing political pressures at home and abroad could take more time. May is trying to hold together a Conservative Party and a Cabinet fractured into multiple camps—proponents of a no-deal Brexit, those in favor of a closer alignment with the EU and those in support of a second national referendum. From the outside, she is harried by opposition parties keen to avoid a no-deal departure and faced with a frustrated public. May has insisted a no-deal scenario would not be “the end of the world,” but if her proposed exit plan is rejected, it would be one of the only paths out of the bloc.
Meanwhile, government no-deal guidance papers—designed to soothe fears—have largely done the opposite, painting a picture of shortages and chaos. Officials are warning that the 1.3 million Britons living elsewhere in Europe could suddenly lose access to British banking and pension services. British businesses, they say, will have to grapple with additional customs checks. Pharmaceutical companies have been told to stockpile vital medicines.
The November 2017 budget promised an extra £3 billion ($3.4 billion) to help prepare for the Brexit departure. Though a spokesperson from the Department for Exiting the European Union tells Newsweek that its “comprehensive” preparation will minimize “any risk of short-term disruption to individuals and businesses,” the National Audit Office—the government’s efficiency watchdog—has suggested the emergency infrastructure required for customs and border security will not be ready by March.
Among the most pressing concerns of a hard Brexit is the impact on supplies of day-to-day goods, which EU membership has allowed to flow freely across Britain’s frontiers for decades. This convenience would end. Borders could be choked as comprehensive customs and immigration checks become necessary. Britain would be forced to fall back on World Trade Organization rules—the basis on which countries trade if they have no free trade agreement between them. Under WTO terms, each nation has a list of goods for which they apply tariffs when dealing with trading partners, meaning in this case the U.K. would face more restrictions and costs.
Disruption to air travel could be especially acute. The EU currently governs U.K. air access to 44 other countries—including non-european nations like the U.S. and Canada— representing around 85 percent of all the U.K.’S air traffic. WTO rules do not cover aviation, meaning a deal must be done to keep planes flying. British government and a group of major U.K. airports have warned that a sudden Brexit could paralyze British airports.
But Rob Griggs, the policy and public affairs director at Airlines UK, a major trade group representing U.k.-registered airlines, says the organization is not expecting planes to be grounded. At the very least, he said, a “bare-bones” agreement could be put in place “quite quickly” with the EU or individual member states to keep aircraft flying in the event of no deal, with a more detailed settlement arranged later. “We’re confident but not complacent,” Griggs says.
There is no such confidence around the seaports, where trucks are expected to be lined up for dozens of miles. The British government is planning to create mammoth overfill parking lots by repurposing highways near key ports, conjuring up images more at home in a disaster movie than on the local news.
The M26 highway to the southeast of London, for example, is being closed periodically as the government considers its suitability for emergency use. May’s Cabinet has also reportedly discussed chartering a flotilla of ferries to ship in vital supplies if major ports are choked, drawing from Brexit critics comparisons with the World War Ii–era evacuation of Dunkirk.
At the Port of Dover, through which 2.5 million heavy-goods vehicles pass each year, authorities have warned that a mere two-minute delay in operation would create a 17-mile traffic jam on the M20 highway leading into London. Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, says additional checks could take as long as seven or eight minutes.
For drivers in the midst of the jam, the queues are just one element of concern. In no-deal guidance papers issued to the British public, the government noted that U.K. driving licenses may no longer be valid on their own in Europe after a no-deal Brexit, which could force any motorists heading across the English Channel to apply for an International Driving Permit before setting off—and deal with the associated fees and waiting period.
“I am not one to panic, but I do not trust our government to prepare.”
At a gas station 2 miles north of Dover, truck driver Jamie—who declined to give his full name—tells Newsweek that the uncertainty over Brexit was “pretty concerning.” Jamie, who is originally from the west coast of Scotland, added, “There’s not much we can do about it, unfortunately. We just have to get on with it and see what happens—it’s a waiting game now.”
Stranded trucks mean stranded food, of which 30 percent is imported from the EU. The government has created a new ministerial post to oversee the protection of food supplies at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but officials are downplaying fears over shortages. Industry representatives, however, are sounding the alarm. A recent estimate by Barclays Corporate Banking suggested food retailers could face up to £9.3 billion ($12 billion) in additional costs in a no-deal situation, meaning higher prices for consumers.
“We’ve been accused of scaremongering in the past,” Wright notes, “but it is scary.” For small producers, Brexit could be a mortal blow. While he suggested supermarket shelves would not suddenly empty, he did warn that Brits may have to get used to less variety in their day-to-day shopping choices. A serious disruption in supply would mean “the range of choice and products available would be very different fairly quickly,” he says.
Jennifer Mcenhill, 36, a Glasgow, Scotland, native who works in advertising and lives in London, never saw herself putting together an emergency “Brexit box” after voting to remain in the EU. A few months ago, though, she began buying slightly more than she would need and putting it to one side of her pantry—“the kind of things you see on lists for food banks,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be a plan, and the government shows very little understanding of how the logistics and supply chain for these markets works. Best-case scenario, I won’t have to use it and this is stuff I’ll have over the next year.”
Britons with chronic medical conditions have more reason to be nervous. According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the U.K. imports around 37 million packets of medicines from the EU each month, with another 45 million going the other way. Currently, all medicine approved by the European Medicines Agency can be sold in the U.K. But in a no-deal scenario, suddenly only those OK’D by Britain’s smaller regulatory agency would be covered.
But stockpiling is difficult with medicines with a short shelf life, like some cancer drugs, or that require refrigeration, like vaccines and insulin, most of which is imported, much of it from the EU. These will also be at risk from airport and seaport delays.
Elgarf, whose 4-year-old daughter has epilepsy, uses medication that is issued one month at a time. “My daughter,” she says, “needs these meds or it could have unspeakable consequences.” Including, she adds, sudden death.
LONELY ISLAND A no-deal Brexit could leave the U.K. alone under a blockade of its own making. The pound, analysts predict, would likely tumble while food and medicine stocks are reduced.