Colin Brazier: European mocking of Brits queuing for fuel is short-sighted

The haulier crisis is part of a global shortage

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The queues have been getting longer, and not just at the petrol stations.In Europe, diehard remainers have been waiting patiently in line for their turn to beat-up on Brexit.

The stick they’ve found comes in the shape of a bone-dry fuel nozzle. Some of the sharpest elbows belonged today to Guy Verhofstadt.

The former Belgian prime minister, quick to seize on the sight of our difficulties as proof that Brexit’s chickens had come home to roost.

“Maybe EU workers weren’t such a burden to Britain after all…” he tweeted, above a picture of exasperated-looking motorists queueing for fuel.

There was schaedenfreude too from the man likely to be Germany’s next leader. Commenting on Britain’s fuel shortage Olaf Scholz said:“We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the [European] Union…they decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

The apparent irony of nasty xenophobic Brits getting their comeuppance wasn’t confined to the continent, however.In Britain, Remainers put up signs near petrol stations bearing the slogan “If you voted for Brexit, go to the back of the queue.”Well, the psychology of panic buying may be a mystery, but you don’t need to be a mind-reader to see how goading 17.4 million Brexit voters like this might potentially backfire.It presupposes that all it takes for a Brexiteer to change their mind is a couple of days trying to secure a tankful of diesel.

It takes us for idiots in another way too. Because there are almost as many reasons for our shortage of fuel tanker drivers as there are empty forecourts in Britain today. And to single out the end of free-movement as the chief culprit is the kind of reductio ad absurdum that Remainers once laid at the door of Brexiteers.

For one thing, messrs Verhofstadt and Scholz are ignoring their own motorways. Across the EU there is an acute shortage of drivers. In Poland, for instance, they have 124,000 HGV vacancies. Many Poles drive in Germany, but not enough to stop the Germans having a shortage of drivers put at about 60,000. The Dutch are so desperate they are now allowing recent arrivals to take an HGV driving test set in Arabic.

It’s a global problem.

In Australia they need a fifth more lorry drivers than they have, a shortage that’s crippling their mining industry.In Britain we have, undoubtedly, taken our lorry drivers for granted for too long. Historically, many of them were ex-soldiers, trained by the army.

But, as the army has shrunk, so has their supply. Training remains expensive and, during lockdown, difficult to do.Covid did something else. Online shopping boomed. Delivery drivers suddenly had a choice. Online deliveries locally, relatively well paid and with work near home. Or long haul driving in a country that’s increasingly not set up for it.

Parking here is difficult and expensive. Too many cabs have no air-conditioning or toilets. It’s not an appealing industry for a sociable young person, or a woman whose worried about safety.All of this was happening unnoticed, until now. The driver shortage has been biting. And the market has started to respond. Hauliers are courting drivers to leave lousy employers for better ones. And they can demand more cash.

Who knew you could earn £70,000 driving a lorry for Waitrose?

But according to the Daily Telegraph, the Road Haulage Association – which represents the hauliers - hated what was happening. They wanted to retain access to cheap continental labour. The RHA denies it leaked details of a government meeting which set the panic buying off last week.And if that was the strategy, then boy, it’s worked.

The union representing British lorry drivers is a lonely voice tonight, maintaining – rightly in my view – that good wages will entice more brits into lorry cabs. Their call for patience is falling on deaf ears.

The prime minister is offering temporary visas to 5000 foreigners. Keir Starmers says it should be 100,000.But if the EU has its own shortage, will those visas ever get filled?

That’s an open question. What’s certain, however, is that ridiculing motorists as they queue for fuel, mocking them for having the temerity to live in a country which voted for Brexit, is short-sighted.

About as short-sighted, it turns out, as it was to treat the people who keep this great country of ours moving - with an indifference they never deserved.

That's the Brazier Angle.