Mon Dieu: A Post-Brexit U.K. Passport Made in France

“It is a national humiliation.”

An old UK passport
Soon to be made in France? (UK Government / Reuters)

If Brexit was supposed to be a victory for sovereign rights and national identity, what better way to celebrate than with a new passport? It’ll be blue and gold—just like the country’s passports were before they conformed to the EU’s burgundy color scheme in 1988.

Also, it will be made by a Franco-Dutch conglomerate, which can produce it more cheaply than a competing British firm.

The new passports were supposed to be a way to reclaim Britishness. But on Thursday, when the British firm De La Rue lost the contract to produce them, its head Martin Sutherland pointed out that his firm wouldn’t be allowed to bid on French passports. France, unlike the U.K., is staying in the EU—and unlike the U.K. doesn’t allow foreign firms to produce its passports for security reasons.

The Financial Times quoted a U.K. Home Office spokesperson confirming that, in the words of the paper, the “winning bid for the 11.5-year contract came in £120m ($170 million) below the next highest.” The official did not name the company, but said, the FT reported, the firm “had a number of government contracts, including the supply of UK driving licenses.” That narrows it down to one company, Gemalto, the Franco-Dutch company that, among other things, makes SIM cards for phones.

The FT added the passports were likely to be made in the U.K., but that didn’t stop the outcry. Nor did the fact that the U.K. passports would join a long list of national symbols—or icons—in countries around the world that are made by foreigners to those countries. Some U.K. military uniforms are made in China; ditto for Australian uniforms. U.S. Army berets were for a time made in China; so were U.S. Olympic uniforms. And that’s just clothes: The statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at his memorial in Washington was sculpted by  Lei Yixin, who is Chinese. The Reichstag dome in Berlin was designed by Norman Foster, the British architect; and Center Georges Pompidou in Paris was designed by Richard Rogers, another British architect.

That, of course, is one of the features of globalization: not just vast supply chains that make goods efficiently and sell them cheaply, but also the ability to hire the most talented people from anywhere (design controversies notwithstanding). Herein lies the fundamental paradox of Brexit: The Brexit coalition is essentially two separate camps, sovereignists and free marketeers. In the first camp are people like Nigel Farage, who see the European project as a stealth attempt to create a superstate with Brussels (or Berlin) at the center while eroding British sovereignty. In the second are those like Boris Johnson who want to escape European regulatory constraints and achieve more efficient markets.

And the passport controversy is where the sovereignty-first and market-first philosophies come into direct conflict. Similar contradictions become more apparent every day as the U.K. moves closer toward withdrawal. After all, as George Eaton pointed out in the New Statesman, it’s not as if supporters of Brexit are particularly irate about European state-owned firms that operate the privatized British railway lines. Nor do they seem particularly upset about the much-beloved National Health Service outsourcing some surgical procedures to France because the U.K. government can’t afford to fully fund its National Health Service. Passports, though, are apparently a bridge too far.

“This should be a moment that we should be celebrating,” Priti Patel, the Conservative member of Parliament, Brexit supporter, and former Cabinet minister said. “But to be putting the job in the hands of the French is simply astonishing. It is a national humiliation.”