Richard North, 21/06/2018  

After the recent rendition of Getlink's presentation on the effects of Brexit, it is rather timely to have reports of a Freight Trade Association conference where warnings were heard that Brexit could bring serious problems to the port of Dover.

Pride of place goes to Leigh Pomlett, the organisation's President, who said:
The time for political negotiations on Brexit is fast running out, and those of us responsible for keeping Britain trading need urgent assistance and guidance from government. We are now in a crucial period where businesses (like mine) need to make spending decisions and commit to operating plans for the period when Brexit will be a reality, but we are currently operating “in the dark.

Without knowing who we will be employing, how we will be crossing borders, what certifications and permits goods and vehicles will require in order to travel, business as we know it will be unable to continue. The logistics industry will be the first part of the economy to encounter the realities of Brexit when vehicles drive off the first ferry to arrive in Calais on 30 March 2019 and we want things to go smoothly, but we need more information about the trading conditions we are to expect once the UK leaves the EU. The time for talking is over – it's now time to act.
Such issues have been the fare of this blog for many years but now we have the Guardian telling us: "Port of Dover warns of 'regular gridlock' in event of hard Brexit", with the sub-heading, "Port's head of policy says there will be serious congestion without a suitable trade deal".

The speaker the paper chose was Richard Christian, the Dover's head of policy. He is recorded as saying that there will be "regular gridlock" in Kent in the event of a hard Brexit. Disruption to freight traffic on ferries and Eurotunnel services would have a profound impact on Britain’s economy.

"Operation Stack", he says, "may be needed around once a week", a view supported by Jean-Paul Mulot, the permanent representative to the UK of Hauts-de-France, the administrative region covering Calais.

Mulot says that the migrant crisis "helped us to understand that it was really easy to have traffic jams on both sides of the Channel", adding: "We can talk and talk and write lots of papers, but in the end, I'm not sure we are going to get to a suitable solution unless the authorities on both sides of the border are allowed to exchange ideas and plan for [a] post-Brexit future".

Showing signs of desperation, he tells us: "The reality on the ground is very different to the big picture in Brussels. We keep saying endlessly we need help. Don't think too big, know more of the ground and let's try to engage".

In a very direct comment, Christian then told the conference: "If the cross-Channel system falls, our collective way of life falls", while customs agents dealing with non-EU freight said that preparations by government to make Dover ready for Brexit were "woefully inadequate".

John James, the chairman of the largest customs clearance agency in the UK, said the government was unprepared for the consequences of leaving the customs union and single market.

In the view of James, the big problem was not random customs checks, but the clearance documentation required for every consignment. A new system for third-country trade being introduced by HMRC in January required 84 data fields to be filled for customs purposes – 34 more than the current system. Each form takes 10-15 minutes to fill out and there was no sign of HMRC recruiting staff in Dover or training them, he added.

Sketching out the size of the problem, he noted that before the Single Market was established in 1993, there were 300 customs officers. Now there are 24 in east Kent. There were also previously 185 customs clearance agents doing the paperwork. "Today, there are only 17, and only five of them of any real size operating a 24-hours-a-day service", he said. "In 1993", he continued, "there were between 2-2.5 million entries; post-Brexit, there will be somewhere in excess of 25 million, this including Dover and Eurotunnel. It is obvious to everyone that customs clearance will be woefully inadequate".

James also reminds us that there would be queues at ports in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and if congestion were severe, ferry companies and Eurotunnel would have to reduce the frequency of their services.

The tedious thing about this, though, is that it doesn't even begin to get close to the reality – which is far more troublesome than even the new requirement to fill in multiple forms. But even if that is the case, the all-knowing Iain Martin in The Times is so far from the real world that he puts the prospect of chaos down to the lack of "fair dealing" from the EU.

Alongside him, we have Robin Walker - the Brexit junior minister - trying to reassure us that none of the problems predicted will happen. "There will be no breakdown at the border" he says. Businesses on the continent need frictionless trade so solutions will be found. It was, he said, "in the bloc's interests to strike an agreement".

Both Martin and Walker are delusional, but it doesn't help either that the industry still isn't able, coherently, to sketch out the full nature of the problems we encounter. There is a certain sameness to their warnings, yet nowhere do I see a comprehensive report from the industry setting out in detail the issues which will have to be addressed.

Readers will recall that I have attempted to think through the likely (or sensible) response to the prospect of the roads being clogged with trucks attempting to deliver their wares to destinations in EU Member States. It seems to me that the one thing the police do with absolutely supreme efficiency is close roads on any excuse whatsoever, and either divert traffic or stop it from moving.

It would take relatively little to organise some form of permit system, whereby international shippers were not allowed to put their vehicles on the road unless they had permits or other forms of authorisation. These would have to indicate that their loads would most likely be cleared when presented at ports in EU Member State territories.

The bill, as I pointed out, comes later, when goods are not exported, in the loss of revenue and in the failed businesses and rising unemployment. But there are measures that governments can take – even if extreme – which can keep the roads clear and the supermarket shelves filled with basic necessities.

That is not to say that there won't be disruptions and local shortages, or even some commodities disappearing altogether – but people are unlikely to starve in the short-term (even if it would be unwise to trust government completely in this respects).

For many other issues, there are workarounds. The pharmaceutical sector is already transferring market approvals to operations established in EU Member States, and requiring the necessary qualified staff to move overseas. Similar, but not quite so straightforward measures are being taken with chemicals, but we can expect the Commission to intervene, to make it easier to transfer registrations to EU-based establishments. And we have already seen new proposals for vehicle type approvals, which will allow UK approvals to be transferred to other Member States.

There is even a convoluted work-around for aviation certification in some cases. Where Member States currently have competence, it is not always possible for UK holders to transfer their certificates to EASA but, under the mutual recognition provisions of the US-EU bilateral agreement, they can transfer them to FAA jurisdiction. From there, owing to a quirk in the way the system operates, they can then transfer FAA certificates to EASA – and thereby keep operating even after Brexit.

Other companies are stockpiling goods in the UK, or expecting their suppliers to increase their stockholdings, and those supplying enterprises overseas are sending out goods in advance, to pre-empt supply difficulties at the time we leave. Even some enterprising ports are offering services which will enable users to bypass congestion.

Meanwhile, Dover, for want of government action, has set up its own Brexit taskforce to study the impact of Brexit on the town, looking at measures it can implement to mitigate the worst effects of any crisis.

In particular, they are looking to improve working relations with local authorities in the Pas-de-Calais district – an essential measure if they are to be able to match traffic flows with the ability of the authorities to clear loads once they arrive in Calais. With 48 million tons of freight passing in both directions each year, they cannot afford to wait for Whitehall to make up its mind.

Other companies, of course, will need to up their games. There is no point, as we see with Siemens UK in having the CEO talking about Brexit when he clearly has little idea of the nature of the problems confronting him. It really is rather pathetic to see 54-year-old Juergen Maier bleating about the need to maintain a customs union, when the tariffs his company faces are the least of his problems.

Maier tells us, "We ship thousands of goods daily across the borders that help keep power stations running, that help keep trains running, that help keep British manufacturing running", asking "are those parts going to be able to pass pretty frictionlessly over the border?” – as if a customs union made the slightest bit of difference.

That aside, if the government fails to resolve the Irish border issue, and the EU decides to stick to its guns, refusing a transition period, no amount of contingency planning will be able to overcome all the problems. Doubtless, the line taken by the EU will depend on the degree to which its Member States and their businesses have put in place the necessary measures to keep their needs satisfied.

One can also be assured that the UK's needs will be well down the line and, in the event of a failure to agree, there will be no concessions unless they are to the overall advantage of EU Members.

Such activity is there currently is, though, is very much under the surface – entirely independent of the excitement in the House of Commons over the last week. MPs have yet to learn that they are entirely irrelevant to the Brexit process.

Arrangements will be proposed by the EU and the government will either accept them or opt for the chaos of a "no deal". As far as Parliament is concerned, it either accepts what is put to them or it too must face a "no deal" scenario. The idea of a "meaningful vote" is a chimera, a hothouse fantasy spawned from the ignorance and fevered imaginations of our elected representatives and their media handmaidens.

Businesses and industry need to look to their own salvation as far as they can – they will get little relief elsewhere, while the rest of us will just have to do what we can. But the idea that government can actually govern is fast evaporating. The central problem we're having to face is actually government. When we start bypassing that, life will really start getting interesting.

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