Brexit damage: Vets warn anti-foreigner rhetoric putting people and animals at risk

Look at any part of British society and you’ll see the damage Brexit is doing.

Take veterinary services. Yesterday afternoon, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) wrote a letter to the prime minister. These are not radical organisations. They never really put out political statements of this sort. They stay in the background, concerning themselves mostly with relatively dry questions of policy detail. But they've been forced to issue a warning that Brexit - and Theresa May's descent into anti-foreigner rhetoric - are putting people and animals at risk.

Around half the veterinary surgeons registering to practise in the UK each year are from overseas - mostly the EU. Europeans are particularly prevalent in public health roles like the Government Veterinary Services. In the meat hygiene sector, some estimates put the number of veterinary surgeons who graduate overseas at 95%. And these people - the people who look after our pets, who check our food - are feeling increasingly uncomfortable in this country.

A passage in the letter reads:

"We have received reports that the increasing focus on foreign workers is causing personal distress to individual members of the veterinary profession who live and work in the UK. There are also reports of a negative impact on recruitment and retention: those involved in public health critical roles, such as meat hygiene, are having increasing difficulty recruiting much needed EU veterinary surgeons to work in the UK; leading experts from overseas are turning down employment offers from top UK universities; and many others are considering leaving the UK due to a feeling it is no longer welcoming to foreigners. There is a danger that the language and rhetoric around Brexit, alongside the ongoing uncertainty for non-British EU citizens, could seriously impact the veterinary profession’s ability to fulfil its essential roles."

It's worth repeating: these are not knee-jerk pro-immigration groups or left-wing opposition parties condemning government rhetoric. These are regulatory and national representative bodies who rarely, if ever, dabble in politics of this sort. They are issuing a stark and sober warning.

This is the product of the xenophobic language coming from the government, the talk of naming and shaming companies who hire immigrants, of locking up landlords who do not check the papers of immigrants, of treating EU citizens in the UK as "one of our main cards". These actions are not just shameful and hideous in their own right. They are actively putting the public at risk.

The veterinary profession doesn't just look after pets. It monitors and controls the spread of disease and assures the quality of the food we eat. If it goes into decline, the animals we love and share our homes with are in more danger. But there is also a very significant public health risk to go alongside the emotional one.

This is a useful reminder of the fact that immigrants, from the EU and elsewhere, make our society function. They are not just here to claim benefits and lower wages. They live beside us every day, performing vital services.

None of this is seen in the day-to-day debate. The economic and political discussion around immigration is constantly framed in terms of them taking and not giving. We hear that they are a drain on public services, but not that their financial contribution to the Treasury is what allows those services to function. We hear that they take housing needed for Brits, but not that they create and stimulate demand. We have treated them like a black hole, something that sucks in money and services but does not contribute. It is repeated so often that it goes beyond a lie. It becomes the framework through which we see the immigration debate. People are completely blind to the necessity of immigrants to our society because it has been so long since anyone suggested they did anything productive.

But while anti-immigrant newspapers and politicians whinged, immigrants were there: Treating your cat. Picking your fruit. Treating your condition. They are crucial to the running of this country and unless we start recognising that, it'll be this country which suffers the consequences of their absence.

The section of the letter I’ve quoted is merely on the rhetoric coming from the government. The policy implications of Brexit are even more serious. In the future, the two organisations warn, “changes to the mutual recognition system or immigration restrictions could have a profound impact upon the veterinary workforce”. That means Britain may face a shortage of vets as it loses half its annual intake. It means a potentially catastrophic impact on TB testing and meat hygiene. It means abattoirs may be unable to export their products because the UK veterinary requirements are not recognised by European authorities.

It's like this all over the country, in sectors which are as diverse as they are vulnerable to sudden changes in policy. Our industries are being sabotaged by an extreme nationalist economic agenda and the cultural aftershock of an openly xenophobic government.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

'Remainer treason' plan shows Brexiters are losing the plot

On the face of it, it is just a foolish demand from an unknown councillor. Christian Holliday, a Conservative representing Burpham on Guildford Borough Council, set up an online petition this weekend demanding anyone still supporting EU membership after Brexit is charged with treason.

"Amend the Treason Felony Act to make supporting UK membership of the EU a crime," it reads. The Act would apparently be amended to include the phrases: "To imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others, to support UK becoming a member of the European Union" and "to conspire with foreign powers to make the UK, or part of the UK, become a member of the EU".

It's easy to laugh. Sometimes laughter is the only thing that keeps you in a tolerable mood when your country seems to be having a protracted emotional breakdown. And yes, we have always had overexcited, foolish councillors around us. But Holliday's totalitarian petition should not be viewed in isolation. It stems from a history of eurosceptic thinking which has always viewed the lending or giving up of sovereignty as intrinsically unpatriotic. For some reason they do not feel the same way about bilateral treaties, or WTO membership, which also often involve giving up some sovereignty. But regardless of their consistency, this is a standard form of thought on the eurosceptic right.

It has been injected with steroids by the Brexit victory. What was once a fringe view now goes right up to the heart of government and the press. Brexiters' instinctive response to criticism is to first of all question people's patriotism and then accuse them of treason.

On Saturday night, Stewart Jackson, MP for Peterborough and parliamentary private secretary to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU), tweeted his outrage at "Remoaner whining" at that bastion of left wing activism, the Economist. He then added: "Cancelled my subscription. UK patriots shd do similar."

Again we see that same idea: To be patriotic is to demand Brexit on the hardest possible terms. To believe otherwise is to, at best, not love your country. And at worst wish to betray it. Once you accept the first interpretation, the second is never very far away.

This message is being amplified by the eurosceptic press. Take the front pages of the Mail and the Express last week when MPs dared to ask for a parliamentary debate on the terms of Brexit. "Damn the unpatriotic Remoaners," the Mail shouts, and their "plot" to "subvert the will of the British people". Note how it emulates the language of war: failure of patriotism, scheming fifth columns, the enemy within, the lionisation of the public and the assumption that all of them are on your side. Look at how the 52-48 vote has been redefined: the British public on one side and unpatriotic Remoaners on the other. The Express takes that idea to its logical conclusion. After all, if someone is acting to subvert the country, they have to be stopped. So it is natural that we "silence EU exit whingers".

Three things have brought us to this place: cynical political strategy, rampant nationalism and post-truth politics.

Look at the briefings against chancellor Philip Hammond by unnamed Cabinet colleagues in the Telegraph this morning. "He is arguing from a very Treasury point of view," the source said. "He is arguing like an accountant seeing the risk of everything rather than the opportunity."

It is astonishing to see ministerial scrutiny, especially from a chancellor, being framed in a negative context. The clear underlying thought behind the comment is that a commitment to Brexit should be the motivating force in Hammond's mind, with concerns about the likely consequences an afterthought.

We see the same thing across government. Trade body officials visiting Davis at the Brexit department report being taken aside by civil servants and told to go in saying that Brexit opens up many possibilities. If they enter making critical comments they are shown the door after five minutes. Any view outside of hard Brexit is intolerable.

Davis refuses to even acknowledge that membership of the single market even means anything anymore. Any talk of whether we will stay a member is met by the insistence that there are a "spectrum of outcomes". Boris Johnson says 'single market', as a term, is "increasingly useless". And May herself says "there is no such thing as a choice between 'soft Brexit' and 'hard Brexit'" when there quite demonstrably is. It is defined by membership of the which she, Johnson and Davis refuse to say out loud.

Emotionally, this is a defence mechanism. When Davis was responding to Labour's opposition day motion on Brexit last week the pound fell again as he spoke and then rose once he sat down. He quite literally acts against the national interest by speaking. When the evidence of the danger of your opinions is so obvious, perhaps the only option is to retreat into fiction.

They are dealing in the politics of the post-fact world. All that matters is the great historic mission of returning full sovereignty to Britain, even though such a thing is neither possible nor desirable.

These three elements - cynical political manipulation, nationalism and post-truth politics - are doing something dangerous to this country. On the national scale, they are driving us towards an economically catastrophic exit from the single market. But internally, on the social bonds between us, they are a poison, a poison which encourages people to mistrust and despise their neighbours on the basis of their politics. Those willing to engage in the talk of treason and lack of patriotism should urgently explore their conscience.

Ian Dunt is the editor of 

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

David Davis is driving us off a cliff edge

The most astonishing element of David Davis' Commons performance yesterday wasn't the refusal to give MPs a say in the Brexit process, or even his sudden transformation from a champion of parliament to a bodyguard for the executive. It was that after months in the job he still does not appear to appreciate the fact that he is driving Britain off a cliff edge.

Davis has the following problem: the two-year Article 50 timetable is insufficient for him to be able to do all the things it entails. He needs to finalise the administrative elements of the divorce - work out who owes what to whom, what happens to British MEPs and their staff, sort out that tricky issue of EU migrants in the UK and British migrants in the EU, as well as several other matters. Then there is the legal element, where he needs to get the repeal bill in place in time for Brexit. Then there is the regulatory issue, where he needs to create authorities capable of handling the deluge of new powers about to be regained for Britain, for instance on fisheries or pharmaceuticals, and give them legal recognition in law. Then he needs to negotiate, agree and ratify a trade agreement with the EU so that tariffs and non-tariff barriers stay down and passporting continues.

The administrative task might just be possible in two years. The legal element needs much longer if it is to be done properly, without little legal vacuums all over the place, or industries which can no longer function because they do not have an authority to validate their processes, or people left with no redress in legal disputes. The regulatory infrastructure requirements need much longer. And the trade deal needs about seven years, or perhaps even longer.

Europe is under no obligation to even talk about trade during Article 50. That is up to its own goodwill and desire for financial stability. At the end of that process there is a vote on the deal, by qualified majority, in the European Council and the European Parliament. And if there is a trade deal that will need ratification in every member state, often by their domestic parliament, and sometimes, as in Belgium’s case, by the regional parliaments. This isn't technically required, but it's what is happening in the case of the Canadian trade deal, which is far less contentious, political and economically far-reaching than ours will be.

So Britain doesn't need just to sort the deal, it also needs to sweet talk MEPs so they don't vote against it. And it needs to understand the domestic political processes in each member state to help them get a trade deal ratified by their parliament.

And while it is doing all this Britain also needs trade experts down at the WTO smoothing out concerns ahead of talks for schedule extraction when we do leave the EU. Except that we barely have any trade negotiators or experts for our EU talks, let alone to conduct parallel talks at the WTO.

It is perfectly obvious what the solution to all this is: a transitional deal. Either you take Norway-style temporary membership of the EEA while you sort it all out, or you get agreement for the two-year negotiating window to be extended if talks have not been completed, or you have an agreement to continue current regulatory and tariff-free arrangements until the point that a new agreement is in place.

What is Davis’ plan for all this? Nothing. He will not countenance a transitional deal, avoids any mention of the fact that he is working to an impossible timetable, and instead just merrily drives us forward towards the cliff edge.

During the debate yesterday, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock asked him:

"The secretary of state will know that the process for exiting the EU will have two steps: first, the article 50 negotiations, which will be by qualified majority voting; and secondly, the negotiation of a new trade deal, which will require unanimity and ratification by all the parliaments of the EU. Will he guarantee that businesses will have the reassurance, which they desperately need, of a guaranteed transition period, rather than their falling off the cliff edge immediately after the article 50 negotiations conclude?"

Davis answered:

"The hon. gentleman makes a good point, but I am not sure that he is exactly right about the mechanism for the final decision. He talks about what is effectively the next procedure, which is what has happened to the Canadian treaty. We have not yet engaged in the negotiation process, so we do not know exactly how it will work, whether it will be sequential or parallel—well, it will be parallel—and how the linkage between the various components will work. At that point, I will be in a better position to answer his question."

Note the way Davis admits he has no control over whether trade deals can be conducted in parallel, then checks himself and goes back to the default Brexiter response of expressing hope as if it were objective truth. Then he doubts whether the system used for Canada would be used for us, even though the Canadian deal is less contentious than ours. And finally he obfuscates with nonsense talk of “the linkage between the various components”. But the executive summary is: he has no plan.

Labour MP Hilary Benn asked:

"Can the secretary of state tell the House whether it is his policy to seek a transitional agreement to cover the period until such time as a final status agreement on trade and market access is agreed with the other 27 member states?"

Davis answered:

"We need hard data about the size of the problem in terms of both money and jobs, and the actions we can take to deal with that. That is why we need to take the time until perhaps March. In doing so, we will try to winnow down the size of the negotiation that needs to be done, and then make it faster than it would otherwise be. We start with an advantage, which the right hon. gentleman, being who he is, has probably spotted, in that we will have exactly the same regulatory basis on the day we leave as the rest of the European Union. That is normally the biggest thing that gets in the way of major trade negotiations. I therefore do not expect the circumstance he describes."

This answer is remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he clearly thinks postponing the Article 50 talks until March is his solution to the time problem. That shows he has not grasped its severity or the way that talks will shatter any carefully prepared plans he has constructed ahead of them. Europe has an advantage in the talks precisely because the consequences are more severe for us if no deal is secured. Davis does not recognise this, so he cannot address it.

Secondly, his reference to regulatory equivalence shows he has become dangerously self-satisfied. It’s true that we have regulatory equivalence, because we have kept the rules up until the point of leaving. But Davis misses the point that even deals which barely include services, like Canada's, take five years just for negotiations (longer when you include ratification). As a service based economy, ours will be much more complicated. Those deals also did not have a political angle where European partners felt they were trying to send firm domestic messages and ensure the long-term survival of the EU. If he really thinks this will be easier than a normal trade deal he is in for a very rude awakening.

Tory MP Crispin Blunt asked:

"My right hon. friend will understand and probably appreciate the irony that the more successful he is in delivering a negotiation that meets the mutual interests of ourselves and the 27, the greater the political challenge for the 27, as it will be seen as rewarding the United Kingdom for Brexit. That opens the rather obvious possibility that at the end of the negotiations they may be blocked, either by a qualified minority on the Council or by the European Parliament. I welcome his undertaking to deliver certainty and clarity where he can, but what plans does he have to enumerate publicly the implications of having no deal at the end of two years of negotiations?"

Davis answered:

"What I say to my hon. friend at this point is that if the European Union adheres to a punishment plan and it fails—as I believe it would—that would be an even bigger incentive to countries that want to leave than no punishment plan at all. The approach that is being talked about would put at risk the stability of the European Union, which has financial instabilities of its own, and it should take that seriously."

There is nothing wrong with Davis' argument on its own terms, but it is very contentious. Perhaps Europe could ensure its survival better by maintaining a stable financial arrangement with the UK. Perhaps it would do better by punishing it. Or perhaps - most likely - it will do a little of both. But his opinion is neither relevant nor an answer to the question. His response to a concrete strategic request is to wish it away. As is so common with Brexit rhetoric he takes the arguments he accepts and projects them onto his negotiating partner. There is no need for a plan, because they will eventually see how sensible the British government’s opinion is.

But what if they don't? What if - just imagine the thought - European partners do not recognise the genius of Davis and Liam Fox and Boris Johnson? What if they do vote down the plan? What if the two-year process isn't long enough? What if the negotiations are far more complicated than Davis comprehends?

For that he has no answer, except the perpetual motion of his own delusion. Davis is driving us towards the cliff edge and shouting down anyone who suggests we might want to build a bridge.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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