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Brexit bites the UK as fuel, worker shortages rage

The United Kingdom is getting hit by gas shortages, fuel rises and food supply worries that are partially the result of the country’s exit from the European Union. Call it Brexit growing pains.

(CN) — Brexit is back with a vengeance: Closed gas stations, rising fuel prices, worries over inflation, too few workers and, soon, livestock may go to waste.

The United Kingdom, the world’s fifth largest economy, is in the midst of an economic, social and political storm many see as a consequence of Brexit compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and turmoil in global markets caused by supply chain disruptions, inflation and rising energy prices.

For the past eight days, Britain has been the scene of closed gas stations, long lines at the stations with enough fuel to stay open, scuffles breaking out between frustrated drivers and reports of essential workers, such as hospital staff and taxi drivers, unable to make it to work because they didn’t have fuel for their cars.

This week, up to a half of Britain’s 8,000 stations were closed and by Friday the situation remained critical with many stations still closed and others allowing drivers to buy only up to 30 pounds worth of fuel. A government minister warned of another week of hardship.

What’s the problem? There simply aren’t enough truck drivers to deliver all the fuel the country needs.

The loss of about 20,000 non-British European drivers since Brexit came into effect in early 2020 is partly to blame. Besides that, the licensing of new drivers was largely shut down during pandemic lockdowns and the industry now says it needs about 100,000 new drivers.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — coming under fire even within his own Tory party — is scrambling to solve the crisis.

As one stop-gap measure, he’s called upon the army to help, but the British military says it has only about 150 soldiers capable of driving fuel trucks.

Johnson is banking on European truck drivers to come to Britain’s aid too. His government is offering 5,000 temporary work visas to foreign truck drivers to fill the gap. In the meantime, the government is talking about training ex-prisoners to become drivers.

All of this has Brits remembering the so-called “winter of discontent” between 1978-1979 when long lines formed outside gas stations over fears of a supply crisis. The 1970s in Britain were marked by low growth and rising prices. Fears of stagflation are returning.

The fuel crisis exploded after a report emerged about an BP oil executive expressing concerns over a possible shortage in drivers forcing a few of the company’s 1,200 stations to close.

That prompted a panic and Brits rushed out to fill up their vehicles, jerry cans and even plastic bottles. The result was pandemonium: The nation’s fuel stocks quickly started to run dry.

About one million European Union nationals have left the U.K. since Brexit, with many returning home during the pandemic and finding it hard to return. Many Brexit supporters voted to leave the EU in order to tighten immigration and Johnson’s conservative government has done just that.

The exodus of EU nationals isn’t just hitting the trucking industry.

One of the hardest hit areas is the food sector. It is warning that there simply aren’t enough field hands and other workers, such as butchers, available to keep the normal flow of food going. On Friday, pig farmers warned that they might have to cull about 150,000 pigs because of a shortage of butchers.

Bottlenecks in the supply chain are causing major problems too. Chickens have been in short supply, pubs have had problems keeping enough beer on stock, McDonald’s fast-food restaurants stopped offering milkshakes and makers of fizzy drinks are scrambling because of a lack of carbon dioxide. Supplies of some medicines have been affected too.

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Labor shortages aren’t the only problems. With more red tape, tariffs and restrictions at the British border, many EU suppliers and truck drivers aren’t bothering to cross the English Channel.

Add to the mix of woes a worrisome rise in fuel prices, which is partly to blame on Britain’s decision to go its own way on energy supplies. It dropped out of the EU’s internal energy market and experts say it now has less bargaining power to control prices.

Since the start of this year, wholesale energy prices have increased by 250% in Britain, by far the highest of Europe’s year-over-year hikes. The price has jumped by 70% since August, a spike that drove several smaller energy suppliers out of business. More energy suppliers are at risk, as fuel prices are only expected to keep rising in the colder months. Globally, demand for energy is outstripping supply.

For Brits who despised Brexit, the present troubles vindicate their warnings that Brexit would result in empty supermarket shelves and higher fuel prices.

Brexit’s cheerleaders, such as Johnson and right-wing nationalist politician Nigel Farage, dismissed such misgivings as “Project Fear.”

Ahead of the Brexit referendum, Johnson wrote in a column for The Sun tabloid that “fuel bills will be lower for everyone” after Brexit. Farage called it “utter tosh” that Britain could suffer food shortages by choosing Brexit. Instead, both men depicted a post-Brexit Britain as a prosperous nation expanding its horizons.

On Thursday, Farage complained on Twitter that he drove to seven petrol stations and couldn’t find fuel at any of them.

“Was then hit by a van whilst stationary at a roundabout. Great start to the day!” Farage lamented. His tweet was bombarded by users reminding him of his Brexit promises.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s “Global Britain” rhetoric got a reality check last week when U.S. President Joe Biden told the prime minister that a U.S.-U.K. trade deal won’t be happening anytime soon.

For many, all the mess was predictable and comes down to Brexit.

“It has become the Voldemort of British politics, the word few in government or opposition will breathe out loud,” Jonathan Freeland, a newspaper columnist for The Guardian, wrote recently. “Once repeated with numbing frequency, it is now the cause that dare not speak its name. I’m talking about Brexit — there, I said it — and when I say ‘cause,’ I’m not describing it as a righteous mission: I mean Brexit as a central explanation for the multiple crises currently afflicting us.”

Across the English Channel, European politicians aren’t showing much sympathy and blame Brexit for Britain’s fuel shortages.

“The free movement of labor is part of the European Union,” said Olaf Scholz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, the recent winners of federal elections. “We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union. Now they decided different and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

After months of disappearing from Britain’s political fights, Brexit is once again being uttered.

On Wednesday, David Lammy, the Labour Party’s shadow justice secretary, said on BBC that the Brexit deal that Johnson signed up to needs fixing. Since a bitter 2019 election loss in which Labour staked its hopes on opposing Brexit, the center-left party’s new leaders have been careful not to question the logic of Brexit. But that may be changing.

“There are challenges for hauliers, of course, right across Europe. But let’s be clear: there are no queues in Spain, in Germany or France,” Lammy said. “So what’s the difference? The difference is that we exited the European Union on Boris’ deal. … This is his deal. When we come to government, we’ll have to look at how we fix his deal.”

Meanwhile, the Independent newspaper on Friday cited a new survey by YouGov that found only 4% of the 6,546 Brits polled think that Brexit has gone “very well.”

Things look like they will only get worse for many Brits as Johnson’s government cuts back on extra cash payments needy Brits were getting to handle the pandemic, raises taxes to cover growing healthcare costs and lifts a cap on the price energy companies can charge customers.

There are plenty of reasons, it appears, for Labour to warn that Britain is entering a new “winter of discontent.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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