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Brexit didn’t create the UK’s fuel crisis. But it did make it worse.

The country is struggling to fill the ranks of its truck drivers.

A line of cars outside a British gas station.
Cars queue at a reopened Shell petrol station in Islington, London, as the fuel shortage continues.
Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Cars are lined up, sometimes for hours, as drivers wait to fill up their tanks. Pumps are out of gas. Fights are breaking out at petrol stations. And traffic is down to Covid-19 lockdown levels, as the United Kingdom is in the grip of a fuel crisis.

A combination of factors are driving (heh) the United Kingdom’s fuel — or petrol, as it’s called — shortage.

There were disruptions in fuel delivery, but Brits’ desperation to get gas appears to be causing the current crisis. People are rushing to fill up their tanks because they are worried there will be a big shortage, and that is straining the available supply. Florian Lücker, a senior lecturer in supply chain management at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London, compared it to the US’s great toilet paper stockpiling at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have potential delays in supplies of fuel, among other things,” said Joanna Clifton-Sprigg, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Bath. “But it wouldn’t have been so bad if we all didn’t suddenly decide to go to a petrol station and fill the tanks to the full in every car we own.”

Why people were panic-buying gas in the first place is a bit more complicated. It’s not because of a national lack of fuel or gas. The UK has enough supply. It’s because there is a shortage of truck drivers able to deliver it.

This dearth of drivers isn’t exclusively a UK problem, it’s a global one, as the commercial trucking industry is struggling to recruit new workers for what is an extremely grueling job — long hours on the road, poor infrastructure to sleep or go to the bathroom.

“Being a truck driver is a really hard job,” said Dmitry Grozoubinski, director of the consultancy ExplainTrade. “It’s not hugely social. It’s not particularly high status. And in a lot of cases, it wasn’t supremely well paid.” The industry skews old, and many drivers are retiring, and though the UK is urging drivers with experience to come back, the often poor conditions and benefits are keeping people away. Add to that Covid-19 pandemic disruptions, which in the UK were particularly acute because the country suspended the testing process for truck drivers during lockdown.

The UK trucking industry is also dealing with something that exists nowhere else: Brexit. The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has exacerbated the crisis. Or more specifically, the version of Brexit pursued by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has.

There are some signs that the immediate fuel crisis may be waning soon, and the UK government has put soldiers on standby to haul fuel, as needed. Johnson’s government has proposed a plan to bring in 5,000 foreign truck drivers through short-term temporary visas in an attempt to make up the shortfall. But that might not be enough to fill labor gaps the UK is experiencing, and Brexit — and the ideas behind Brexit — may make it harder to find long-term fixes.

What does Brexit have to do with the UK’s fuel crisis?

The UK’s fuel crisis is not a Brexit-made crisis. But it is a crisis made worse by Brexit.

Pay for truck drivers isn’t always commensurate with the demanding nature of the work. The job became less appealing to Brits, and so like a lot of industries, companies sought to fill their ranks with workers from elsewhere. Wealthier countries in the EU have often relied on workers from poorer EU member states, and those workers could drive a truck in the UK or Germany and take home way more money than they’d be able to earn in, say, Poland.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, there are about 16,000 fewer EU nationals working as HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers in March 2021, compared to last year. The UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates a shortage of 100,000 workers, about 20,000 of which are from a shortfall of foreign workers.

The UK’s ability to recruit foreign labor worked when it was still a member of the EU, as one of the bloc’s core principles is freedom of movement for workers. This means EU citizens can look for a job or work in another EU country without needing country-specific work permits and with few other barriers. That made it fairly easy for someone from Bulgaria to pick up and move to the UK, or anywhere else in the EU, to take a job as a long-haul trucker.

But this free movement of labor — mainly from newer EU members from central and eastern Europe to richer EU members — brought a backlash. In the UK, this became a huge ideological driver of the Brexit referendum in 2016. In a little over a decade, the number of people born in all other EU countries who settled in the UK increased by about 4 percent, but it accompanied a perception among some of an influx of immigrants from central and eastern EU countries. Later, fears over refugees from Africa and the Middle East helped galvanize voters in the UK and tapped into a larger skepticism about EU membership. At times, racist campaigning against migrants became a troubling feature of the Brexit vote.

Boris Johnson, then as a campaigner for Brexit, promised leaving the EU would allow the UK to “take back control” of its immigration system. Limiting the freedom of movement was a conscious policy choice championed by Johnson and other pro-Brexit leaders as his government negotiated the Brexit deal and post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Once the UK left the bloc, it would also leave its single market, which underpins the EU principle of the freedom of movement for people (along with goods, services, and capital). That all took effect at the close of 2020, when the Brexit transition period ended. So it’s now not so easy for a trucker from another EU country to come to the UK to live and work.

This is not just about the act of leaving the EU, but also the specific decisions on immigration and labor that the UK leaders made once Brexit gave them the chance to set their own policies. That includes plans to limit the number of unskilled workers the UK lets in. “There’s Brexit, generally — and then there is the Brexit that Boris Johnson pushed through, which is close to the most extreme you could have,” said Tanja Bueltmann, a professor of history and migration at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

She called it a “self-made” problem. “The government could, of course, have decided to have an immigration system that’s flexible enough to not let this happen,” Bueltmann said. “But they chose not to do that.”

More generally, the Brexit deal negotiated with the EU created more friction between the two partners. That, too, was a deliberate choice, and has added a layer of red tape to the trading relationship. It may make it less attractive to be a trucker in the UK than in the EU and more difficult for EU truckers to make up some of the shortfall the UK is experiencing. “What Brexit has meant is that the UK no longer enjoys the way that the EU pooled resources and moved stuff around in order to take the edge off those problems,” Grozoubinski said. “It’s like getting shot in the leg when you’re by yourself, rather than when you live in a community. The bullet’s still there, but you have a lot more resources and ways to be flexible.”

It has also been difficult to untangle the current rules from the anti-immigration sentiment that accompanied Brexit. People may not want to come to work in the UK where there is a sense they aren’t as welcome or won’t be able to settle in the UK. That unease may have prompted some truck drivers to leave.

But, according to Elizabeth de Jong, the policy director at Logistics UK, the pandemic just made everything worse, as people may have just gone back to their home countries during the lockdowns. “The thing that has changed because of the EU exit is that we would normally be able to just bring them back, and you can’t just bring them back or recruit more from the EU,” de Jong said. “We haven’t got that option anymore.”

The UK is trying to respond to the shortages, but it may not be enough

Experts stressed that the fallout from Covid-19 is a big part of this mess. The training and testing of truck drivers were paused during the lockdowns, which created a gap in hiring that can’t be easily papered over — maybe someone willing to be a trucker in April 2020 has now found a new job. And the shortage of truck drivers, in the UK and elsewhere, is tied to those bigger structural problems in the industry that aren’t quickly fixed.

The UK government has tried to downplay the Brexit connection, mostly blaming the pandemic. But the panic-buying and fights at gas stations have prompted the UK government to basically concede that the shortage of foreign workers is contributing to the truck driver problem. Boris Johnson recently announced a plan to extend 5,000 temporary three-month visas for truck drivers, along with another 5,500 thousand for poultry workers (for similar reasons, there’s a fear Brits won’t have turkeys for Christmas).

Trucking companies and industry groups have been pushing the UK government to offer visas for some time to help bolster the workforce, especially after pandemic delays. The UK government resisted, as it would have meant compromising on their post-Brexit immigration positions. Instead, they had largely been pushing industries to hire more UK workers. The government did tweak some training requirements and other regulations around trucking to help ease some of the pressure. But, ultimately, the Johnson government decided it needed to expand the pool of workers.

But these additional visas — 5,000 — may not be enough to meet the scale of the problem. The government has also said this is a “temporary fix” — basically, an effort to hold over the country until the holidays — and officials have stressed that any measures will be “strictly time-limited.” Yet this truck driver shortage is a much deeper problem, and it likely won’t be time-limited. And the setup of the visa program is not a great recruitment sell, either.

“The fact that it’s temporary and for such a really short period of time as well — only three months — makes it incredibly unattractive for most people,” Buetlmann said.

Or as Jakub Pajka, a truck driver in Poland, told Reuters: “No thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, I will not take advantage of this opportunity. No drivers want to move for only three months just to make it easier for the British to organize their holidays.”