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Brexit and COVID-19 Spark Britain’s Labor Shortage

Military tankers have been placed on standby to address a flash fuel crisis.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A sign informs motorists that there is no fuel.
A sign informs motorists that there is no fuel at a petrol station near Tonbridge, southeast England, on Sept. 27. Ben Stansall/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: British military tankers are on standby to address a fuel crisis, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan travels to Saudi Arabia, and dozens of people are killed in northern Nigeria attacks.

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Overlapping Crises Take a Toll on Britain

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: British military tankers are on standby to address a fuel crisis, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan travels to Saudi Arabia, and dozens of people are killed in northern Nigeria attacks.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Overlapping Crises Take a Toll on Britain

Although the benefits of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union may accrue in the future, British people today may have to learn to live with less.

The dual shocks of a hard Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have hurt Britain’s supply chain, leading to shortages of goods from chicken to McDonald’s milkshakes to the carbon dioxide used in fizzy drinks.

As many Western countries learned over the course of a punishing pandemic, although a large portion of the labor force can work from home, many essential services were provided by workers in less glamorous professions who could not stay at home. Now the U.K. has run out of some of the most essential workers of all: truck drivers.

Closed borders, dry pumps. The British government has been loath to blame Brexit for the lack of drivers, citing delays and cancellations in truck driver tests over the course of the pandemic. But Brexit also ended freedom of movement for EU citizens in the United Kingdom, making it harder for European truck drivers to add British stops to their itineraries. New immigration rules have compounded the problem, making it harder for foreign drivers to immigrate to the United Kingdom. (FP’s Zinya Salfiti provided an in-depth explainer on the roots of the crisis on Monday.)

The driver shortage has led to scenes reminiscent of the 1978-79 “winter of discontent,” with motorists queueing outside gas stations and pumping them dry amid fears of a supply crisis. The problem has become severe enough for the government to put military fuel tankers on standby.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has attempted to address the shortfall by offering 5,000 temporary visas for foreign truck drivers, among other measures to train workers domestically. The increase the visa program would bring represents a drop in the ocean, according to figures from the Road Haulage Association. The trade group warned in August that 100,000 additional drivers were necessary to address Britain’s needs.

Neighborly advice. Germany’s Social Democratic Party leader and would-be chancellor, Olaf Scholz, offered his assessment when asked on Sunday whether Britain’s driver problems were caused by Brexit. “The free movement of labor is part of the European Union,” he said. “We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union. Now they decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

As he continued, Scholz echoed comments by British ministers that the problem has systemic roots: “It might have something to do with the question of wages. If you understand that being a trucker is really something that many people like to be and you find not enough, this has something to do with working conditions, and this is something that has to be thought about.”

Global Britain’s future. Britain’s domestic drama highlights the challenges facing a government that has staked its foreign-policy future on a “Global Britain” agenda. With its trade future with the European Union foreclosed, it must look further afield.

Although hopes of a quick deal with the United States faded last week following Johnson’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, other avenues remain open. Britain begins talks today with the 11 members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership as it strives to become the first European country to join the Pacific trade bloc.


What We’re Following Today

Sullivan in Saudi Arabia. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan begins talks in Saudi Arabia today as part of a Middle East trip that also includes a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Sullivan is the highest ranking Biden administration official to travel to the kingdom, and he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the trip.

The talks, taking place the same week of the third anniversary of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, are an indication that U.S.-Saudi relations have not undergone a sea change under the Biden administration, despite recent U.S. disclosures that have embarrassed the kingdom.

They also highlight the importance of Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. Timothy Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, accompanies Sullivan on the journey, hoping to push for a cease-fire in a conflict that remains hot. The Saudi-led coalition launched 20 airstrikes within 24 hours on Monday as it sought to repel a Houthi advance on the strategic city of Marib, Yemen; 67 fighters were killed during that period.

Saudi Arabia has otherwise been busy diplomatically, holding fresh talks with Iran in Baghdad last week as it comes to grips with new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Milley faces Congress. Mark Milley, the chairperson of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee today, with both parties prepared to grill the highest ranking U.S. military officer on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Also discussed will be his influence on China and nuclear issues during the final days of the Trump administration.

Milley, who will appear alongside U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, is also expected to face tough questions about a U.S. drone strike in Kabul following the Islamic State-Khorasan bombings at Kabul’s airport. It soon emerged that U.S. forces had not hit Islamic State fighters at all: 10 civilians were killed instead, including seven children.

Violence in Nigeria. At least 34 people were killed in northern Nigeria following an attack on the village of Madamai in Nigeria’s northern Kaduna state, state security commissioner Samuel Aruwan said on Monday, blaming unidentified assailants for the attack. The assault, which Aruwan said took place on Sunday, came the same day 22 Nigerian security personnel were killed in an attack on an army base in Sokoto state, also in the country’s north. In recent weeks, Nigerian states have introduced restrictions on residents in an attempt to stem the violence, attributed to so-called bandits as well as the Islamic State’s West African offshoot.


Keep an Eye On

A U.S. Belt and Road? The United States is set to begin a scouting mission in Latin America this week, searching for infrastructure projects to fund as part of plans to compete with China’s Belt and Road initiative. Daleep Singh, the U.S. deputy national security advisor for international economics, is set to travel to Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama to solicit ideas from local officials. The United States is hoping to offer a better deal than China, White House officials said, by focusing on projects with high labor and environmental standards as well as by providing more transparent financial terms.

Trouble at the IMF. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has reportedly stopped taking calls from embattled International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Kristalina Georgieva following criticism from U.S. lawmakers who said the IMF head is too close to China. Yellen’s cold shoulder comes in the wake of an investigation into Georgieva’s actions while she was employed at the World Bank. The report alleged Georgieva had intervened to boost China’s business-climate rating, a charge she denies. In a defense of Georgieva published in the Financial Times, American economist Jeffrey Sachs argued against removing her from her position, warning it “would be a dangerous and costly capitulation to anti-Beijing hysteria.”


Odds and Ends

Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi has called for a clampdown against a drug fad in the capital, Kinshasa, which has led to an increase in car part thefts. The drug, called bombe (the Lingala word for “powerful”), is a crushed up cocktail made up of vitamins and sedatives along with one key ingredient: the ceramic honeycomb core of a car’s catalytic converter, usually used as a filter on exhaust pipes.

The concoction has become popular in part because of its numbing effects. “We used to drink very strong whiskey. We were restless, and we would hurt people,” one user told Reuters. “But with bombe, it calms you down. You get tired. You stay somewhere standing up or sitting down for a very long time. When youre done, you go home without bothering anyone.”

Others are not so sure the drug is harmless, with car owners increasingly reporting thefts of their catalytic converters. Dandy Yela YOlemba, the Congolese director of the World Federation Against Drugs, warned that with little known of the drug’s long-term effect on humans, it was best avoided.

“Its not a substance made for us to consume,” Yela said. “Are we engines, or are we humans?”

Correction, Sept. 28, 2021: Germanys recent election was the CDU/CSU’s first election without Angela Merkel as the chancellor candidate in nearly two decades; yesterday’s brief misstated this timeframe.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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