The post-Brexit blue passport saga symbolizes the conflicted mess Britain is in

I’m blue.
I’m blue.
Image: UK Government/Handout via Reuters
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We are nearly one year to the day when Britain will leave the European Union. But the only definitive plan executed by the UK government so far is the rolling out of a blue passport for when Brexit happens on March 29, 2019.

The government is yet to secure concrete, detailed agreements with the remaining 27-nation bloc on some of the biggest issues that severing ties with the EU entails. This includes trade or immigration deals, which won’t be drafted into political declaration unless the UK government agrees on the contentious issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But what they have focused on is making our passports blue again.

There’s no real reason for Britain returning to a blue passport other than to symbolize a victory for nationalism. Britain’s immigration Minister Brandon Lewis said in December, “leaving the EU gives us a unique opportunity to restore our national identity and forge a new path for ourselves in the world,” and that’s why he was “delighted” in announcing the return to the blue and gold design. James Baldwin who teaches history at Royal Holloway, University of London even pointed out that the UK could’ve had a blue passport as part of the EU if it wanted—Croatia does. It was deliciously ironic then that British company De La Rue, which has made the UK’s passports for the past nine years, lost the bid to manufacture the redesigned post-Brexit passport to French-Dutch company Gemalto.

On Friday (Mar. 23), a spokesperson for the UK prime minister Theresa May said:

We feel the chosen company demonstrated that they would be best able to meet the needs of our passport service. We needed a high quality and secure product which gets the best value for money for the taxpayer. This was a new bidding process, which rightly went out to tender and we feel that the chosen company both demonstrates the best value for money for the taxpayer, and also in these kinds of things, security is paramount and we feel that the chosen bidder meets those needs. But no judgement on De La Rue specifically.

The question over the blue passport has spiraled into a political storm (paywall) but more importantly provides a microcosm to the macrocosmic problems that Britain faces as it approaches Brexit.

Turning passports blue isn’t exactly mission critical right now. The UK government has to iron out deals for incredibly complex areas around immigration, trade, and the Northern Ireland border. Then once that is, eventually, put in place, it will spend years as part of a transition deal implementing them while making sure the economy doesn’t fall over a cliff-edge. The transition deal is already touted as worryingly short (paywall). With all this dangling over Britain’s head, you’d think the last thing it would do is spend time and  £490 million ($690 million) (paywall) on a contract to just change the color of the passport. Priorities are out of whack.

When it comes to the business-side, the brouhaha surrounding the French-Dutch firm winning the bidding process also hammers home the conflict between nationalist-entitlement and what’s good for the rest of the country. If the UK is going to spend half a billion on a project of vanity and smoke and mirrors, at least make it a good one.

The government said Gemalto’s contract would create 70 new jobs in the UK and if it went to the British firm De La Rue, it would have cost £120 million ($170 million) more. Gemalto is also allegedly rated the best manufacturer for cyber security. But De La Rue still wanted to contest the bid, the Brexit-supporting media claimed the move was showing “hate [for] our country,” and now members of the House of Lords are asking the government to reconsider rescinding the contract. Britain’s shadow Brexit secretary also weighed in, on the Peston on Sunday TV show on ITV, also stating that, “The passport is such an important issue, of course it should be a British company.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Keir Starmer said: “The story of the passport sums up the government’s approach really to Brexit. It starts by saying it’s going to be blue and then it’s not going to be blue. It starts saying it’s going to be the UK and now it’s France. Over-promising and under-delivering, which for me categorizes year one of the negotiations.”

He has a point, after all, the negotiations have been described as a “shambles,” time and time again. But it’s easy to criticize without giving a solution.

There’s an insinuation that Brexit will allow a willful monopolization and that foreign companies can be shut out of procurement deals. However, under a range of World Trade Organization and EU rules, which are “not going to change soon after Brexit, if at all” (paywall), foreign companies will be still in the running for contracts. Cutting them out will be a breach.

Furthermore, regardless of where a company is from, wouldn’t the taxpayer be more interested in saving money rather than arbitrarily paying more? Starmer agrees but then, like with most of the criticism around the passport fiasco (and Brexit generally), no one knows what they want.

“No one wants to throw away £120 million quid. They should have got the most competitive bid they can, but to put it to a French company is the wrong thing to have done,” he said.