End to freedom of movement behind UK fuel crisis, says Merkel’s likely successor

The centre-left politician in pole position to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor has pinpointed the decision to bring an end to freedom of movement with Europe after Brexit as the reason for the British petrol crisis.

Olaf Scholz, who is seeking to form a coalition government after the SPD emerged as the biggest party in Germany’s federal elections, said he hoped Boris Johnson would be able to deal with the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU.

“The free movement of labour is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” he said. “Now they decided different, and I hope that they will manage the problems coming from that, because I think it is constantly an important idea for all of us to make it happen that there will be good relations between the EU and the UK, but this is a problem to be solved.”

A number of EU member states, including Germany, have longstanding HGV driver shortages. The most heavily impacted countries are Poland (a shortage of 124,000 drivers), the UK (60,000-76,000) and Germany (45,000 to 60,000).

But unlike the UK, companies in the EU member states have been able to to rely on nationals from their neighbours to fill the gaps, and the problems of empty supermarket shelves and panic-buying at petrol station forecourts have been avoided.

A report from Transport Intelligence, a research company specialising in the logistics industry, has described the UK as entering a “Bermuda triangle of Brexit, pandemic and tax reforms/peak seasons, leading to a pressing driver shortage in the UK”.

In his comments on Monday morning, Scholz echoed Johnson’s explanation for the shortage of drivers in some European countries.

He said: “Let me just add it might have to do something with the question of wages … They want to know if it’s something very good for their whole life and if you understand that being a trucker is something which many people really like it to be, and you find not enough [people], this has something to do with working conditions and this has to be thought about.”

The accumulation of problems in the UK in recent weeks – from empty supermarket shelves, gas shortages, a lack of petrol on forecourts and the short supply of CO2 required for services ranging from the running of abattoirs to the production of fizzy drinks – has been seized on in the European media as being part of the Brexit fallout.

Libération, a French newspaper, ran a front page earlier in the week with an empty toilet paper roll bearing the words: “Brexit: Les lendemains qui déchantent”. (The tomorrows that failed to deliver).

According to Transport Intelligence, Brexit made it “legally impossible to recruit foreign HGV drivers”, while the Covid pandemic created a backlog of tests and led to about 15,000 eastern European drivers returning home, many of whom did not return.

Between 2010 to 2017, the number of EU nationals driving HGVs in the UK rose from 10,000 to 45,000, and fell to 42,000 in early 2020. From March to June 2020, the number of EU HGV drivers declined by another 15,000, to 25,000, recovering only slightly to 28,000 by the end of the year.

The government had also introduced tax changes that Transport Intelligence said had exacerbated the exodus from the UK by obliging all contractors with a turnover of £10m or 50 staff to pay full tax and national insurance on their drivers, starting in April 2021.

Michael Clover, the head of commercial development at Transport Intelligence, said: “It is a perfect storm really. We don’t have the lever of other international drivers to come in like most of Europe so capacity can be shuffled around, because we are no longer in the EU.

“Poland has for a long time been a net exporter of drivers but you can fill some of those gaps with drivers from Lithuania or Hungary or from Romania, Bulgaria and a few other EU states.”

The Guardian

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