Richard North, 17/11/2020  

Having written about the possible consequences of Brexit for the best part of seven years, it's a bit tiresome having to read superficial "explainers" by journos who've given little more than a nano-second's thought to the subject, but have been instructed to do fill-space articles because, with less than 50 days to go, it has suddenly become fashionable.

The trick, of course, is to sieve recent Brexity articles for some topical-sounding scare quotes, preferably from prestigious figures or well-known names, top them with a few clichés, add a few numbered headings with a stock picture of a truck queue and, in just a few moments, you have another priceless legacy media masterpiece.

There's going to be a lot of this about in the next few weeks, with plenty of willing volunteers to provide cheap copy for the ravening media, people such as Jean-Marc Puissesseau who, back in January 2019 delighted the likes of Guido Fawkes with comforting assurances that the Calais authorities were preparing for a no-deal Brexit and would be "ready" for the off, ensuring that "no more trucks will be stopped crossing the Channel than at present".

This was proof-positive that all those "doomsters", as Johnson liked to call them, who were warning about possible havoc, had got it completely wrong. Oddly enough, though, Guido had been less keen to pick up the golden words of Puissesseau, the previous March, when he warned that Calais after Brexit "could be ten times worse than the Irish border".

Now, it seems, the irrepressible Jean-Marc is back on form, telling a Lords Committee, as recorded by The Times, that British lorry drivers will find it "so difficult" to enter the EU without the correct paperwork after Brexit they will never forget it again.

Described as "the chief executive of the port of Calais", although he's actually the president of the Calais/Boulogne complex, he tells us that having the correct customs declarations would be as important for drivers as carrying a passport once the transition period is up at the end of the year.

This differs somewhat from the scenario in 2019, when Puissesseau was saying that the customs at his port would only be checking for veterinary and sanitary controls (even though customs don't do such checks), for which infrastructure and parking was already being built. This, he said, "will not influence the traffic in Dover".

However, Puissesseau's optimism was later sharply deflated by a Commission official and, now that he has been reined in, he is trotting out the official EU line, as per the customs code.

Any lorry arousing suspicion in checks carried out as they cross the Channel will be taken aside once they arrive in France, into new "orange" lanes where a detailed examination would take place. These could include inspections of lorries to make sure their paperwork matched their consignments.

"It will be so difficult for them to cross that they will do it maybe one time, they will not forget [their paperwork] two times,” he told the Lords. "When you take the plane you have to show your passport", he said. "If you don't have your passport, you stay in Heathrow or you stay in Charles de Gaulle airport".

Also cited by The Times is another familiar figure, Mark Dijk, the manager of external affairs at the Port of Rotterdam. He actually featured in a piece in the Guardian in April 2018.

Then, with uncertainty about whether Mrs May was serious about pursuing a no-deal Brexit, officials at the port, which handling 40 million tonnes of UK trade in goods annually, said plans for the construction of new customs inspection posts, parking spaces and cool warehouses for flowers and vegetables were on hold.

At that time, Dijk was saying that the level of the investment required by the port and its ferry companies meant certainty was needed. It was, he said, all dependent on what kind of free trade agreement they work up. "It's a very difficult decision", he added, "because we don't know what is going to happen and those investments are not cheap. And we do not know if they are possible".

Now, more than two years later, Dijk, is confident that the port is prepared for the end of the year, he fears that many businesses and hauliers will not be. "We are ready as a port itself but you can't be ready alone", he says. "If you look at the whole supply chain - producers, manufacturers, they have to be preparing as well, because you can't just leave it to the port and the customs. And that's what we are still worried about".

Cue Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, who says his ports had found it "agonising" to extract information from the government on what new infrastructure they would require. He complains that this particularly relates to imports of animal and plant products, such as meat, salads and flowers.

Now, with only weeks to go, he is saying: "To stop those and inspect and open a lot of those consignments, I think is something we really need to think about". A no-deal scenario could make it "completely impossible” for certain ports to accommodate those goods.

Ballantyne adds that: "It would basically put traders at a real disadvantage bringing their goods in to certain routes and gateways if they know that a high percentage of those volumes need to be opened and inspected. We've found that very challenging".

I've dealt with some of those issues in a recent blogpost on the Humber ports but, in fact, I've been writing about them for years, reaching back to 2013, with thousands of words written since, in dozens of articles.

That Ballantyne is now saying this "is something we really need to think about" is more than a little bit worrying but, as Booker and I found when we talked to the senior management of a major UK port some years back, there was a total lack of concern for the effects of Brexit.

The complacency, combined with an extraordinary ignorance of how EU border controls in relation to third countries actually work, has contributed to a general lack of preparedness. Yet, the moment Mrs May decided we were going to leave the Single Market, back in 2017, port inspections were always going to be a certainly.

Now, at the eleventh hour, we are stumbling towards a no-deal scenario, with an almost complete lack of infrastructure, none of the staff needed to perform the checks that will be required, no certainty over financing, and none of the procedures or systems in place, while exporters are similarly ill-equipped.

Thus, when we have a senior EU official, warning that it was getting "terribly late" to seal a new trade deal with Britain and that it "may be too late already" to put in place any agreement before 2021, even if negotiators seal it this week or the next, that isn't even the half of it.

The UK government should have been in high gear, two to three years ago, planning for the moment when we finally left the Single Market, investing in the infrastructure and everything else needed to deal with the new regime.

Instead, the time has been frittered away, with meaningless rhetoric and prevarication, bolstered by unrealistic expectations of which we might expect from the trade negotiations. As a result, what was always going to be problematic has now the potential to be catastrophic.

But when we see what could have been totally avoidable disasters unfold, we should resist the temptation to blame "Brexit". These are government-inflicted injuries, brought about by serial incompetence, ignorance and blind stupidity, going back many years. When we point the finger, we should at least be looking in the right direction.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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