It's spring in Britain. Longer days, birds in the trees, buds on the bushes – and Brexit on people's minds. One spring ritual here is to plan annual family holidays. In the winter months, some will have enjoyed a trip to the Caribbean or Dubai or Thailand. For most, though, the cold season is endured at home, made bearable by Christmas, New Year and the deferred gratification of a couple of weeks of sunshine in France or Spain or elsewhere in Europe later in the year.
Last year, like millions of other Brits, I loaded the car, took a two-hour ferry trip to France. From there, I could drive without any further border checks to Berlin, the Algarve or Tuscany. I’ve made these trips for years. Thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which means that most European Union borders do not need any further checkpoints, I drive to my holiday destination in the same way I would drive through Britain. No immigration to clear, no customs checks, no bureaucracy. But not any more.
Unbelievably, after more than two years of squabbling in the Westminster parliament and repeated negotiations in Brussels, British holidaymakers still have no idea what kind of deal we are going to get with the EU. Or if there will be any deal at all. And the deadline is just two weeks away.
The threat of a no-deal Brexit has taken the joy out of spring. British holiday bookings abroad have slumped. Tour and travel companies are offering cut-price bargains, but it seems that huge savings are still not enough to allay people's fears about spending money on a holiday that might end up ruined because our politicians cannot get their act together.
Take flights, for example. It so happens that I am flying to Ireland just before the supposed Brexit date of March 29. I’m sure I will get there. I’m not so certain about getting back, though. Will my return flight be disrupted? Who knows? Will those planning to fly to Spain or Greece in a few weeks’ time arrive and depart smoothly? Will the already weak pound fall even further and make a foreign holiday worryingly expensive? We don’t know about that, either.
What we do know is that for families such as my own, who have long taken great pleasure in driving through France and on to other countries in Europe, there is even worse news. In the past few days, French officials have given us an idea of what a no-deal Brexit might look like, imposing checks on lorries bringing food and other goods into Britain from all over Europe via the port of Calais. The result has been miles of traffic queues and passengers delayed as bureaucratic measures last seen decades ago are restored.
For advice about my summer holidays, I turned to the UK government website. It says: “From 28 March 2019, drivers from the UK may need a different international driving permit (IDP) to drive abroad.”
That means my UK driving licence, which, for as long as I can remember, has been all I have needed to drive in Europe, might no longer be good enough. The government isn’t sure. I “may need” an international driving permit. Or I may not. How about car insurance? The bureaucrats have equally helpful advice on that. Instead of my existing insurance policy, which has always covered me in the EU, from March 29 “drivers of UK registered vehicles will need to carry a motor insurance Green Card when driving in the EU and EEA”.
I have no idea what a “motor insurance Green Card” is. Where do I get one? And what happens if I end up in some kind of accident? More useful official information: “UK residents involved in a road traffic accident in an EU or EEA country should not expect to be able to make a claim in respect of that accident via a UK-based Claims Representative or the UK Motor Insurers’ Bureau.”
Again, I have no idea what all that means, quite simply because I have never in my life had to think about it. Taken all together, this all screams at me to not go on holiday until our politicians start to show at least the faintest glimmer of competence. However, based on recent evidence, it’s safe to say that might take a while.
So, I start thinking about maybe flying to Greece, the Canary Islands or Sicily – all places I love, or jumping on the Eurostar. Cue more grim news from the British government about changes to passport requirements after Brexit: “You should have at least six months left on your passport from your date of arrival. This applies to adult and child passports.”
Then, the final straw. Twenty-seven million British people have European Health Insurance Cards, meaning that we qualify for health care in the EU – until March 29. After that, they are invalid.
Apparently, 17 million British people voted for Brexit. I wonder how many realised they were also voting to invalidate their driving licences, health and motor insurance in the EU, and for delays at every border they cross. Perhaps I just need to take a holiday, relax and forget about it all.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter