Two months after I covered it on this blog and three months after I had referenced it in Monograph 16, a national daily paper is finally covering the issue of road delays at Kapikule, on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria.
In this case, it is The Times, referring to delays "last week" at the border crossing, even though the local press is reporting tail-backs as recently as Sunday.
At least the issue is getting into the legacy media – albeit drowned by the flood of Brexit-related items that have little or anything to do with the practical realities of leaving the EU. But this is something we need to be looking at very seriously. Our border management after we leave can make or break Brexit, potentially triggering an economic crisis from which it could take decades to recover.
The Times, though, follows in the wake of the Financial Times which, on 16 February ran a story headed: "Turkey border gridlock hints at pain to come for Brexit Britain".
The similarities are somewhat striking as the Financial Times offers as its narrative:
On a recent Saturday at the Kapikule border crossing, about 30 minutes drive from the Turkish city of Edirne, a line of trucks 4km long stretched along the highway, inching along glacially towards the Bulgarian checkpoints. "Today is a good day", said Ibrahim Kurtukcu, a 42-year trucker who had been waiting 14 hours. "Last week the line was 7km long". The record is 17km. It can take up to 30 hours to get through to the other side.
By not so complete contrast, The Times says:
On a sunny morning at the Kapikule border crossing between Turkey and Bulgaria last week, lorries queued for a mile on the Turkish side just to enter the terminal's 300-vehicle car park. This counts as a good day at one of the European Union's busiest land borders. At one point last month, the tailback extended for 15 miles. Truck drivers sometimes wait 30 hours to enter the EU. "Who could be satisfied with this?", Ahmet Celikci, a 42-year-old driver, said, lounging in his cabin near the back of the line. He estimated that he had an 11-hour wait stretching out ahead of him. "It's fine now, but in winter or summer conditions it's awful".
Continuing with the story, The Times tells us that each driver clutches a sheaf of several dozen documents - an export declaration, a carnet from Turkish customs officers, invoices for the products they are hauling, insurance certificates and, when lucky, a transport permit for each EU nation they will drive through.
They face, says the newspaper, mounds of paperwork, hours of waiting, a scrabbling for scarce transport permits and random inspections, all before trucks can enter the borderless trading bloc.
And so is the point made, the one made so many times by this blog. A British truck can travel from London to Berlin as easily as from London to Birmingham. However, customs clearance times for the small amount of non-EU freight traffic moving across the UK border ranges from twenty minutes to four hours.
Thus we have Duncan Buchanan, deputy policy director for the Road Haulage Association, tell readers that the imposition of customs procedures could have a particularly serious impact on Britain's food supply chain. Nearly 30 per cent of food consumed in the country arrives from the EU via lorry, he says.
So, what starts off looking to be a good exposition of the problem degenerates into confusion. The stuff is there, but poorly ordered, so the precise nature of the problem is far from clear to the average reader.
"The Turkey example is a good one", Buchanan says, "but you need to also consider that much British road freight goes by sea. If you're unable to load or unload a ferry, the risk of supply chain disruption is even greater".
And therein lie the dynamics, on which one needs to focus. Vehicles leaving the UK, in the first instance, are unlikely to encounter any problems. Travellers will know from their own personal experience that customs are rarely an issue when leaving the country. It is when you get to the destination that there is more likely to be trouble.
We've written up some of the problems here, centred around the need to produce a Single Administrative Document (SAD). Each of those forms requires checking and clearance by the French customs, who will suddenly be presented with an unasked-for administrative burden for which they are singularly ill-equipped.
What is missing here is the necessary emphasis on the scale of the operation, and how it has grown with time, especially at Dover, where roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) freight, came quite late.
It was not until 1965 that the port was equipped to allow trucks to drive straight on to ferries, replacing the previous tedious and often expensive procedure of loading a vehicle at the factory, off-loading into the hold of a ship and repeating the process at the foreign port of call. Yet, in the first year, it only handled a few hundred lorries
By 1991, the port was handling a million freight vehicles and continuing to grow, then to be joined in 1994 by the Channel Tunnel. By 2015, Dover Port had become the UK's largest ro-ro facility, handling 2.6 million freight vehicles in the year, moving 27 million tons of freight. Alongside it, the Channel Tunnel handled 1.5 million truck movements and 19 million tonnes of freight.
The point here is that, on Brexit, the customs authorities will have to process over four million vehicles, shifting 46 million tonnes of freight – well over four times the workload it had managed in 1992 when border controls were abolished.
Processing, of course, is very much simpler now there are computers to ease the burdens, and risk-based assessment has replaced arbitrary inspection. But, nevertheless, the officials are having to confront a staggering increase in workload, with facilities that no longer have the space to accommodate them – not that the Channel Tunnel ever did.
Inevitably, from Brexit Day onwards, there are going to be delays. As trains and ferries arrive at already over-crowded facilities on the other side of the Channel, they will be unable to unload. That means they will be unable to pick up new vehicles, and will block the trains and vessels behind them. Very quickly, the system seizes up and then the queues start on the English side of the Channel.
Now, with an average of 12,000 trucks a day sharing the same road, Operation Stack goes into action – a snake of lorries lengthening at the rate of a hundred miles a day, doubling back on itself as the police park them on both sides of the M20.
The difference between this and previous occasions, though, is that this will not get better of its own accord. The facilities as they stand, will require major expansion, with considerable development of infrastructure - a process that will take several years.
Below is a picture of a newly-built customs post at Peschatka, on the Belarusian-Polish border, partly financed with EU money. Its expected capacity is 1,130 passenger cars per day, with 50 trucks and 20 busses. Calais would be expected to handle ten times that level, just in terms of trucks. We haven't even considered the five million cars that go through the tunnel/port complex.
Heedless of this problem, both the Financial Times
and The Times
prattle on about the customs union, neither paper seemingly understanding that the union between Turkey and the EU does not confer free movement of goods – just the abolition of tariffs. And if, as Mrs May intends, we drop out of the Single Market - as well as the customs union, which indeed we must – we will in some senses be worse off than Turkey.
These newspapers, however, devote space to the road permit system and the truck quotas that the Turks have to deal with, adding a further layer of complication. But I don't see that happening to the UK, not least because new restrictions would probably breach the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement
on right of transit.
The issue is going to be, in the first instance, coping with change. There is nothing to say that, when systems are adapted and settle down, they will not run smoothly. At le Havre, where the port trades with many third countries, average customs clearance time
is 4 min 47 seconds. The level of paperless customs declarations is 100 percent.
For the UK and the Member States alike, the problem is getting there - in an environment where the facilities probably cannot support full customs control over the current level of traffic.
Eurotunnel can probably cope better than the port of Dover, which is having to manage 17,000 ferry arrivals a year. The tunnel operation can run into Dunkirk Port – which it already does, and where there is room for expansion, albeit at considerable cost. The ports will probably have to downsize, with some of the traffic containerised and redirected to other ports. Overall demand will, in any event, probably decline, as trade between the UK and the EU dwindles.
This then is not a message of doom. Given time, planning and investment, the problems are manageable. Eventually, a resolution will be secured.
But no system can cope at short notice with the massive changes on the scale that Brexit will bring, without preparation. And that is why there is cause for concern. We are not seeing any indications that the Government is aware of, or willing to recognise, the degree of stress to which our Channel links are about to be exposed.
The Government needs to be instigating detailed studies of the impact of Brexit on the port and tunnel complex, in conjunction with the Ports of Calais, Dunkirk and even le Havre, together with the French Government and the European Commission.
Already, it has been indicated that none of the cross-Channel parties are willing to talk before Article 50 is invoked, which then leaves us two short years to cope with a unique situation, where failure could be disastrous for the UK. Until the Government shows signs that it does understand what is needed, and is committed to the necessary action, we have every right to be worried.
And if, next month, the Government does not give us some very clear signs that it is on top of the game, we will need to be very worried indeed.