The Union flag, also known as the Union Jack, left, stands next to a European Union (EU) flag ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

In Brexit Britain, Taking Back Control Means the Opposite

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Prime Minister Theresa May likes to insist that her Brexit deal means Britain will “take back control” over its borders. But with just three months to go before the U.K. leaves the European Union, the very opposite is happening. Control is being outsourced, not taken back.

The money and skills needed to create Britain’s post-Brexit infrastructure are making the country more, not less, dependent on foreign help. A French company, Gemalto NV, will print the U.K.’s new, patriotic blue passports. Another French business, Sopra Steria, will manage its visa and citizenship program. France’s Vinci SA made it a hat trick with its takeover of Gatwick Airport, through which 45 million people fly every year.

A charitable interpretation might be that Britain is a great trading nation open for business. A less charitable one would be that as the hard reality of Brexit hits home, the U.K.’s stretched finances, slowing economy and weakened currency are pushing it to make awkward compromises. If foreign firms bring attractive price terms and investment, that’s a win for the U.K. taxpayer — but border infrastructure is a big trade-off.

There’s a growing sense of desperation, not pragmatism, as Britain struggles to deliver on its Brexit dream alone, especially as Theresa May scrambles to save her take-it-or-leave-it deal with Brussels. The messier Brexit gets, the more help from abroad becomes necessary.

May’s government recently awarded a 14 million-pound ($18 million) contract to a British company to provide extra ferries in case of a no-deal Brexit. The hitch is the firm has no ships and has never run such a service. It was the only bidder, according to the BBC. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling tried to defend the move as supporting a new British business, but it still smacks of a lack of control, preparation and resources — not patriotism. Other contracts were awarded to French and Danish ferry firms.

And for all May’s tough talk about ending freedom of movement and reclaiming sovereignty over Britain’s borders, her government’s biggest struggle over the holiday season was with non-EU migrants. Hundreds of people crossed the Channel to reach the U.K. in November, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid describing it as a “major incident.” He later called in the Royal Navy.

Yet given the border is in Calais, the likelier path is more cooperation with France: Britain has already agreed to spend more cash to maintain and strengthen the existing border, rather than move it to the U.K.

Cross-Channel investment and political cooperation may be good things, all in all. But if Brexit was supposed to be a show of independence and taking back control, it has yet to achieve it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.