Richard North, 27/11/2020  

It is possible to imagine that a sense of glee prevailed in the Independent offices when it posted this piece telling us that the EU-UK trade talks were "in [a] fresh crisis", with Downing Street officials admitting that they don't know "if EU negotiator Michel Barnier will turn up for face-to-face talks due to resume on Friday".

Asked if Barnier was expected in London, the spokesperson said: "That is a matter for the EU and a decision for them to take". But when approached by the Independent, Barnier's office said it was currently unable to confirm his travel plans.

However, the BBC is adamant that face-to-face Brexit trade talks will resume in London this weekend – based on information from apparently willing, although anonymous "EU sources". I'm beginning to wonder whether there are any EU officials left, below the top ranks, who actually have names.

Anyhow, there may not be a lot of difference between the Independent and the BBC, as the BBC has roped in a "senior EU figure" – no less – to suggest that the talks "could be brief".

One is not informed as to whether a "senior figure" is superior to a "source", or whether either is more authoritative than an "office", but we have to take what we can get. Perhaps they are all one and the same person, even doubling as our androgynous extra-terrestrial.

On the other hand, there is Tony Connelly - who is believed not to be an extra-terrestrial. He has been broadcasting to all and sundry (which is unsurprising since he is definitely a broadcaster) that Barnier has called a meeting of fisheries ministers from eight coastal states, including Ireland, for some time today.

This meeting is to be held by video conference, so it is possible that Barnier could host it from London, although one suspects that he will not be patching Frost into the discussions. Nevertheless, at least one paper is suggesting that this " may signal breakthrough" in the talks, which Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney describes as "very, very difficult".

Happily, we are assured that the force is "very, very strong" given how enormously disruptive the end the transition period without a deal would be. Perhaps they should try working it out on the walls of Dublin Castle with light sabres. It would certainly be a lot more entertaining.

Connelly also tells us that Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has said he is concerned that a "significant number" of agri-food companies are not prepared for Brexit, which is a bit of a shame as that happened quite a few months back. That aside, Charlie wants businesses "to take steps to ensure they can continue to trade with the UK after 1 January", which would be fine if they knew what steps were necessary.

HMG is certainly doing its bit, having published revised guidance on "Trading under WTO rules" – to be activated from 1 January "if there is no UK trade agreement".

Readers will be comforted to learn that the page on trade agreements "will be kept updated". For the moment, though, they will be highly impressed with the intelligence that: "From 1 January 2021, the way you trade with some countries will change". From what we are told, this might be news to some people – especially extra-terrestrials.

According to Reuters, though, some British businesses are only too well aware of what faces them. These are the ones who are rushing to stockpile goods, with just five weeks of the transition period left.

Jon Swallow, director of Jordon Freight, tells Reuters that the consequence " is there's simply not enough capacity and the prices are going through the roof". He adds that demand had pushed prices up by around 20 percent in recent weeks and further rises were likely in December.

Fellow freight specialist Tony Shally says his company, Espace Europe, has seen the cost of journeys between Poland and England, and Northern France and England, rise by more than ten percent.

But, along with the rush to bring in goods, companies are also having to prepare to deal with customs declarations. Sam Harris, operations manager at provider Freight UK, says it had become a full-time job just to answer the phone to new customers. "Most know nothing about customs", he adds. "Everyone is panicking".

We get a similar take from Chris Goodfellow, managing director of Locker Freight. He has told his staff to stop fielding calls and only process emailed requests, after they struggled to serve existing clients. "I don't believe people were burying their heads in the sand", he says. "They had just been overwhelmed by what had gone on (with COVID-19) and when they realised that Brexit would still go ahead as planned, panic started to set in".

That is not to say that some businesses have not been burying their heads in the sand. After I did the story in 2017, Booker followed shortly after and I did it again two years later, the Express has woken up to the story, framing it in the typical manner of the legacy media around the personality of Lewis Hamilton.

In and amongst the personality trivia, however, it manages to quote Chairman of Motorsport UK David Richards, who "warned last year that a no deal Brexit could see Mercedes walk away from Formula One" He says that that Brexit will "not make life easier" for teams based in the UK" and adds: "I have been surprised that the teams haven’t been overly-concerned about it".

"For some months now, Toto Wolff (Mercedes Team Principal) is the only person that has been very clear on the problems", Richards says. "If we get a no deal Brexit, the early part of the season is going to be very challenging for all the teams, and I don't think some of them have fully considered that yet".

It was actually in February last year that Wolff went public, and has since described Brexit as the "nightmare scenario". He also said that the changes about to come in place could hand Mercedes' rivals Ferrari an advantage. "Brexit", he warns, "is a major concern for us and should be a major concern for all of us who live and operate out of the United Kingdom".

For others, it won't matter whether they adopt the ostrich position – they can't prepare anyway. That seems to be the fate of some banks and financial services, who have been told that EU assessments of whether to grant market access will not be completed in time for January.

The last word for the moment, though, must go to John Shirley, a freight forwarder who has been brokering trade through Dover for 25 years. He tells Sky News that he foresees chaos, and a potential supply crisis.

He says the UK has no chance of recruiting enough customs agents and clerks to handle the volume of paperwork that will be required, and points out customs currently only has the resources to check one percent of vehicles. He predicts interruptions to food supplies and manufacturing, not caused just by delays, but by European drivers reasoning that it is no longer worth diverting to the UK.

"We're using words like petrified, terrified", he says. "We don't use words like that. We are a pretty hard bitten business, we lurch from crisis to crisis, but we share the view that the hauliers are taking that the sensible thing is not to come here at all. That's what we are being told in no uncertain terms".

"There's a shortage of drivers across Europe", Shirley says, "and they like to do a round trip in a week. In the east, it can take ten hours to get into the EU in the first place. If it is going to take you days to get back out of the UK and you are stuck here rather than driving it will not be worth their while".

The BBC, though, illustrates its story with a picture of a solitary sandcastle on the beach not so very far from Dover (pictured). I suppose the subliminal message is that, if you can't panic, then build a sandcastle and stick a couple of flags in it. It won't solve anything, but it might make you feel better.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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