Dover-Calais post-Brexit trade plagued by uncertainty


How the government plans to manage the new UK customs border remains unclear because, with less than six months remaining until the new regime comes into force, it has still not published its Border Operating Model, The Financial Times reports.

It quoted Tim Reardon, the head of ‘EU Exit’ for Dover Port, who said that however it works, the new system will involve a huge step-change.

At present, almost all the freight entering the UK that requires customs controls is ‘unaccompanied’  –  it comes in boxes and containers that can sit in docks and airport warehouses until cleared for onward delivery.

“But Dover Port is not a depot, it’s a gateway,” Reardon stressed. “So, we need a border management process that keeps this river of traffic flowing, rather than imposes on lorry traffic the same processes we have on unaccompanied boxes.”

Eurotunnel, which handles 1.5 million trucks a year, has the same problem at its site in Folkestone, 16 kilometres west along the coast from Dover, added John Keefe, the director of public affairs at Getlink, the Tunnel’s owner. “We just have no space,” he said.

Despite the negotiations on the future relationship appearing to stall in Brussels last week, the UK’s draft Free Trade Agreement does contain a section on facilitating ‘ro-ro’ ports, with both sides recognising each others’ trucking permits regime to enable free-flowing traffic, the FT underlined.

EU officials said the two sides were “not far apart” on key issues, but noted such easements would still require an overall EU-UK deal to be agreed. In a ‘no deal’ outcome, the UK would potentially face greater restrictions, including significant shortages of trucking permits when it fell back on to the European Council of Ministers of Transport system.

The FT added that according to ports and haulage industry insiders, the border blueprint was promised to industry in March, then again privately in April and May, but was ultimately delayed by the Covid-19 crisis. Industry now expects it “later this month”, but the government declined to confirm a date.

What has been made clear by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, is that deal or no deal, the UK will not take the laissez-faire approach of previous ‘no-deal’ plans, which prioritised traffic flows with simplified customs procedures. In February he announced that a full customs, VAT and regulatory border will be enforced.

The UK will also not seek an exemption from Safety and Security declarations for hauliers, adding another 200 million separate declarations to the annual tally.

On the French side, a new post-Brexit border system is already in place. Importers and exporters will need to prepare customs documentation which will be converted into a barcode that will marry goods with hauliers at the check-in point for the ferry or train. Trucks without the correct paperwork will not be allowed to board.

During the short journey to France, screens in driver lounges will indicate whether trucks will go into an orange lane (for inspection) or a green lane for free onward passage into the EU.

For trucks entering the UK, the system is still unclear. Given the physical space constraints at the port, the expectation from operators is that checks will be conducted at inspection zones away from the port, or in the warehouses where goods arrive.

The FT quoted Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, who noted that ultimately the biggest concern is that even if checks are pushed away from the ports to keep the trucks rolling, this will only work if business has the correct papers.

“If you are a business grappling with this for the first time and you don’t have the right paperwork, are you going to stop trading – or will you take a risk and head to the port?”

Last week, Burnett, whose association in March petitioned the government to extend the Brexit transition period, wrote again to ministers warning there was just “too little time” for hauliers and their customers to prepare for the new border. “We are still missing the essential practical information on all new processes and procedures for importing and exporting goods to ensure fluidity at the border,” he said.