ever underestimate the Brexit romance, the tug for an island nation set in a silver sea unconquered for 10 centuries, proud of its insularity. The idea of the sea wrenches at British heartstrings: you can hear it when you listen to the language of the Brexit groundswell. Normandy landings, D-day pluck, empire, sailors – leave voters use this imagery, however far from the shore.
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Read moreBrexit leaders rub in that seafaring imagery but here’s the paradox: these buccaneers promoting free markets on the high seas are the same deregulators who have helped destroy British shipping.
What irony that P&O Ferries has announced that Brexit is forcing it to deregister from Britain, putting its entire fleet under the Cypriot flag. No red duster will now ply the channel from Dover to Calais, only foreign flags. Rule the waves? We won’t even have a British red ensign flying across the Channel. Once foreign-flagged, P&O ferries can’t be requisitioned for any no-deal Brexit crisis.
The 180-year-old “Peninsular and Orient” line is steeped in the kind of British history our Brexiteers celebrate. Founded in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, it shipped the empire: profiting from the opium war, it transported 632,000 tons of opium from Bengal to China. Under royal charter it delivered the Royal Mail to India and in the postwar years it carried more than a million “£10 Poms” – British emigrants to populate Australia. It lost 85 ships in the first world war, 179 in the second. Decline began with India’s independence; in 2006 it was sold to Dubai.
How perverse that Brexit – designed to bolster quintessential Britishness – has caused the final loss of P&O Ferries to the British flag. “For operational and accounting reasons, we have concluded that the best course of action is to re-flag all ships to be under the Cyprus flag,” says P&O. Registering in Cyprus will “result in fewer inspections and delays”, with “significantly more favourable tonnage tax arrangements as the ships will be flagged in an EU member state”.
It will indeed be easier to operate from inside the EU. It promises no change in working conditions, for now. Yet Brexit will be a problem for British crews, who need certificates of competency. Once their certificates lapse, as with other professions and trades, it may take years before the EU recognises UK qualifications: we’ll join a long queue of countries applying; and without recognised certificates, British citizens can’t work.
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Read moreThose who are leading – or misleading – the country into Brexit are the very same political breed of free marketeers who allowed the cataclysmic demise of British shipping. That began in the 1980s, since when the number of British merchant navy officers has been cut by two-thirds. Though 95% of our imports and exports go by sea, we rely mainly on foreign ships to bring everything. No longer a seafaring nation, Britain now owns just 0.8% of global shipping; and of those few, only a third are still registered under a British flag. Forty years ago there were 90,000 mariners; now there are just 23,000.
Some two-thirds of ratings on ships registered with the UK Chamber of Shipping come from low-paying non-EEA countries. Unlike most immigration fears, this is a genuine case of foreign labour undercutting British employees, as there’s no lack of British young people yearning for a life at sea. Nautilus, the union for professional mariners, says 10 well-qualified young people apply for every apprenticeship. Though companies are obliged to do some training, they rarely take on apprentices once trained. Why should they, when they can pay at least a third less and still comply with global minimum standards?
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‘No red duster will now ply the channel from Dover to Calais, only foreign flags.’ Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/ReutersT here was a reason why P&O chose Cyprus, out of plentiful other EU countries. Why not France, the obvious choice for plying the channel? Because France is unionised, with high standards. Cyprus is a flag of convenience, despite being in the EU. Over half the world’s ships are now registered under flags of convenience. In countries such as Panama, Liberia, Singapore and the Marshall Islands, it’s cheap to register, tax is low, and standards are the bare legal minimum. There are few inspections for safety, food, clean water, rest hours and conditions for crews.
In the deregulating 1980s, British shipping joined a global free-for-all. This is exactly the behaviour the EU should prevent, with stricter rules about who uses its ports. The US has its 1920s Jones Act forbidding any but US-built, -owned and -crewed ships plying from one US port to another. Why hasn’t the EU done likewise? In the fiercely competitive global shipping market, only the EU can stop a downward plunge in pay, conditions and safety.
Yet again, Britain is to blame, acting as drag-anchor on EU progress. A manning directive was proposed to keep crews of ships sailing between EU ports protected by EU pay and conditions, but Britain helped the ship-owners sabotage the plan. The UK also chooses to issue the most certificates of equivalent competency to foreign crews, less well-trained and paid, undercutting its own mariners but pleasing the shipping lobby. We even let foreign ships and crews sail to and from our ports to our own oil platforms and wind farms.
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Read moreBritain’s role in the EU has too often been to stop progressive employment laws: remember our shameful opting out of the social chapter, until the Labour government opted us back in. How surprising that EU citizens still say they want us to stay. Yet more surprising are the few trade unions who back Brexit. Researching the P&O story, I was called by Mick Cash, head of the RMT, representing ratings. So I asked why he backs Brexit, when it would be easier to win strong shipping regulation from within the EU. The victorious Brexiteers will be ideologically opposed to creating better British working practices: they are the ultimate deregulators. But Cash says he still reckons Britain alone will, in some future halcyon day, be more free to set its own better rules independent of the rest of Europe. Most unions and the TUC disagree – as does Nautilus, deeply alarmed at the likely damage done by Brexit.
P&O is just one case of Brexit flight, as other big companies threaten disinvestment and departure. But P&O taking the opportunity to fly a flag of convenience stands as a warning for how post-Brexit Britain will try to compete by deregulating and undercutting. Today’s Westminster “battle of the amendments” may seem remote to many, but the next few weeks will settle the future for us all for decades – for better or very much worse.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist