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Hard Brexit Means Hard Times on the Toilet
One consequence of leaving the EU that Brexiteers forgot to reckon with? Nationwide toilet paper shortages.
March 5, 2019, 12:28 PM
A woman dressed in a flag leaves a portable toilet in Windsor, England, on May 19, 2018. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The Brexit secretary has warned of food shortages. The defense secretary has warned of soldiers on the streets. The Bank of England has warned of a financial crisis. The Taoiseach of Ireland has warned of violence at the border. And the queen, it has been reported, will be evacuated. With Britain inching ever closer to the edge of a no-deal Brexit, however, these dire warnings are increasingly falling short. In a January column in the Telegraph, Boris Johnson observed of his fellow Brexiteers: “[T]he grimmer the warnings, and the more systematic the efforts to make their flesh creep, the greater has been their indifference and their resolve.”
But new rumblings from Britain’s beleaguered paper importers may finally make clear what’s at stake. In conversations with industry experts, Foreign Policy has learned, a no-deal Brexit may leave Britain without an adequate supply of toilet paper.
It would be yet another addition of insult to injury—and one that is all too reflective of the practical difficulties and uncertainties posed by leaving the European Union. For now, barring an extension to the withdrawal deadline set by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, Britain’s scheduled departure is March 29. On that day, if Parliament has not accepted the terms of the EU and Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, the drawbridge will go up: Free and frictionless trade will be supplanted by tariffs and customs checks; hefty delays at ports will be matched by heftier delays at airports where planes will be grounded due to a breakdown in oversight and certification. The scope and scale of all the consequences, at present, are incalculable.
Easier to calculate, however, is one minor humiliation in the grand scheme of societal complications. This is Britain’s looming twofold toilet paper problem, which will be driven by difficulties with stockpiling and importing.
While Brexit preppers have stirred headlines in recent months with their preemptive purchases of essential items, the stockpiling of large manufacturers—and the lack thereof—matters most. For goods with short shelf lives, such as medicine and fresh produce, the limitation is quality: Store an apple or an antibiotic for too long and it will go bad. For goods that are large and bulky, such as toilet paper, the problem is quantity. And in the case of the United Kingdom, where the average resident uses an unrivaled 110 rolls of toilet paper per year, the highest figure in Europe, any meaningful measure of forward planning would require more real estate than is currently available. This is just one of the terrible challenges that the paper industry—and the public—may face in the coming months, said Andrew Large, the director general of the Confederation of Paper Industries, the leading trade association for the U.K.’s paper-based industries.
“It’s very bulky and light in weight for its volume, which means you need an awful lot of warehousing space in order to be able to put down meaningful stocks of the material,” he said. While there has been some stockpiling—several weeks of finished rolls and perhaps months of unfinished pulp, according to Large—the practical limitations to stockpiling leave a great deal of uncertainty. This uncertainty, more than anything, is most worrying for the industry. “The thing that will cause a crisis,” Large said, “is if people do panic and they empty the shelves preemptively, whereas if normal buying patterns are continued, there would have been enough supply in the system for everybody to be fine.”
In the event of no deal, it is difficult to imagine that this sort of self-perpetuating panic will not get produced. The campaign to drive up this panic to avert a no-deal Brexit or force a second referendum has been underway for the better part of the past three years. It will undoubtedly continue. And on the toilet paper front, “Project Fear” has already found a vociferous champion in the former Labour Party MP Denis MacShane, who has claimed, wrongly, that Britain has a toilet paper supply of just one day. False though MacShane’s headline triggering warning may be, and erroneous though his claim is that “British bottoms will have to be wiped with torn-up newspapers as in bygone days,” such panic pandering is indeed effective. Its effect, to deplete stockpiles in the event of no deal, will likely pour attention to the nation’s ports, where, unfortunately, the situation will give no more room for optimism.
The British paper industry is an import business. Of the 1.3 million tons of paper on the British market, 1.1 million tons—85 percent—have been imported from overseas producers, with 60 percent coming from the EU. It is an exceptionally precarious position for an economy that may suddenly remove itself from a long-standing trade agreement, and the situation will leave the entire market exposed to Brexit’s many compounding and cascading disruptions.
If a no-deal Brexit strikes, the free and frictionless trade with the EU to which Britain has grown accustomed will grind to a halt. New tariffs, new certifications, new standards, new paperwork, and more will drive up costs and delays for suppliers and consumers alike. The British government, which did not begin taking the possibility of no deal seriously until very recently, has conceded that the situation will significantly undermine the British economy in both the short and long term. Most immediately, the problem will be the sudden disruption to the flow of imports.
For the paper market, fortunately, trade will still be free as tariffs on paper products were previously eliminated under the Uruguay Round of the World Trade Organization, which will provisionally govern U.K.-EU trade in the event of no deal. The problem for paper will instead be the sudden lack of frictionless trade, the emergence of checks on all goods entering the country. While there have been efforts to mitigate these new barriers, such as the government’s recent announcement of transitional simplified procedures that aim to reduce import documentation and postpone duty payments, the essential issue of hard checks cannot be circumvented. A clear delineation between the EU and the U.K. is precisely what Brexit is about, and the need for borders—as demonstrated by the enduring drama over the Irish backstop—is an essential condition.
A representative from the Port of Dover, the port physically closest to Europe and one of the largest in the United Kingdom, expressed a measure of confidence in the government’s transitional procedures and in the private contingency planning underway but conceded that delays, and the costs they drive up, will not be avoided. At best, the representative said, the flow of trade may not be disrupted, but the new arrangements “will of course impose a significant new cost on the overall supply chain, as businesses up and downstream from the port incur significant cost in generating customs declarations and fulfilling other procedural obligations.”
This assessment, grim though it may be, is likely not grim enough. In a forward planning notice recently released by the Cabinet Office, the verdict was that “there will be significantly reduced access across the shorts straits, for up to six months,” a period that stretches beyond Large’s stockpiling estimates, beyond the Port of Dover’s provisional flow of trade estimates, which threatens a significant disruption of daily affairs for a remarkably extensive period of time. To be sure, as Large noted, there is something of a “sliding scale between how big the disruption is and how long it lasts.” That is, if a no-deal Brexit causes the scale of disruption at Britain’s borders that has been suggested, there is little doubting that a withdrawal agreement would be supported by Parliament, and the crisis would be averted, immediately. If, on the other hand, the disruption introduces observable but still manageable inconveniences—costs and delays without panic and poverty—it may, Large said, “become the new normal,” an outcome that would still be disastrous though not theatrically so.
What will this new normal look like? How long will it last? Will it unleash a frenzy of shelf emptying? Or will the British simply keep calm and carry on? The answers, like much of Brexit, are uncertain, and they reflect the uncertainty that portends problems well beyond the scope of toilet troubles—the supply of fresh food, the status of foreigners, the operability of flights, and more.
Drumming up fears about Brexit is a tired task. It failed three years ago, and three years later it is not doing much better. It is also, often, a dishonest task. Potential job loss figures, for example, have been revised down from numbers as high as 75,000 and 200,000 to 5,000 and 13,000. Splashy headlines about insulin shortages, paired with jabs at the diabetic prime minister, have obscured comments from the public and private sectors that insulin will remain in good supply. Strained parallels between Brexit and the policy of appeasement have passed even less muster.
Nevertheless, the consequences of Brexit are real. Job loss figures will still likely end up in the double digits; domestic insulin manufacturing—which currently provides for less than 1 percent of British consumption—will have to be rethought; and the populist politics that permitted Brexit will have to be put in historical perspective. Just as well, the minor inconveniences, the trifling things that demonstrate just how much of Britain Brexit infects, are real, too. An emergency meeting that drew high-level parliamentary attention last month concerned wooden shipping pallets, which Britain will apparently desperately require after Brexit. Another intransigent issue has been fishing. Even the most substantial dispute in the Brexit saga, the Irish border, at the end of the day, is more syntax than substance: Everyone agrees that there should neither be a hard border nor a lack of demarcation—the question is how that might be arranged. The toilet paper problem, including the difficulties with stockpiling and the uncertainties with importing, is another item on this list. Logistically boring but societally substantial, it may just be the humiliation to rule them all.