Richard North, 04/05/2018  

It was in January 2013, while I was working on a guide to leaving the EU, that I noted on this blog that, outwith the EU and the EEA, the UK becomes, as far as EU law is concerned, a "third country".

Therefore, I wrote, imports from third countries must to subject to a raft of inspections, documentation and physical checks at member state ports (including airports) before they are allowed entry. And it was at that point that I first introduced the theme of Border Inspection Posts (BIPs).

I mentioned BIPs again in the October of 2016, when I warned that meat products from the UK could only enter the EU via a BIP and that the nearest was in Dunkirk (there is no BIP in Calais). That only had the capacity for inspecting 5,000 consignments a year - an average of less than 15 per day.

Failing Dunkirk – which had invested €2 million in its facilities - the nearest French alternatives were Le Havre or Brest, but it was unlikely that they would have much spare capacity. And to develop the capacity was going to take time and a great deal in capital investment. As a result, I said, for a very long time, it will not be possible to export some types of food product to France.

In January year last (2017). I was just as strident, warning that UK exports of foods of animal origin could cease once Brexit took effect. I also noted that industry did not seem to have woken up to the threat (which I'd raised four years previously) – and the politicians seemed fast asleep.

A month later, I was referring to a report from the Road Haulage Association, which had been warning that the failure of the government to negotiate the right customs agreement could cause delays at the ports which could leave supermarkets short of food supplies.

Around that time, we also saw Graeme Charnock, CFO at Peel Ports Group, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. He too warned that customs delays could cause problems, reporting that when a container was inspected, its dwell time at the port estate could be anywhere between two and four days.

But missing from the Committee evidence, and the RHA report, was any mention of the need for exports to be routed via Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). The omission had me remarking that I didn't know what it would take to get BIPs into the public consciousness but, since the legacy media was ignoring the issues, I guessed it would take some time yet.

Nevertheless, Booker wrote up the problem in his column at the end of February, only to be ignored as usual. This left me, a day later , to warn that there was "a crisis in the making", reminding people that, according to EU law, products of animal origin imported into the EU must be inspected at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) and products of plant origin at Community Entry Points (CEPs). In practice, I wrote, these are usually combined in single locations.

April 2017 saw me publish Monograph 17 on the subject of food exports to the EU – another thing for the legacy media to ignore.

In September 2017, the IFG had a go, its report in part based on my briefing, but it still got crucial details wrong, demonstrating extraordinary difficulty in getting to grips with the issue and understanding the ramifications. That had me despairingly reporting that, as things stood, the problem was insoluble.

There simply wasn't (and still isn't) enough capacity in the Channel ports to handle UK consignments after Brexit. And there wasn't enough time to install that capacity by Brexit day, even if we started now. Since no attempts were being made to remedy the capacity shortfall, I wrote, there was not the slightest chance of seeing "frictionless" trade in the sectors affected, after Brexit.

I returned to the theme a month later in October 2017, suggesting that a "sense of panic" was needed. Looking at the food safety rules for fresh meat and meat products, I wrote how, within the Single Market, checks were carried out at point of production and then right through the food chain, under the direct supervision of the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO). Thus, for intra-community trade, border checks are not necessary.

However, I said, when produce comes from third countries, its conformity with EU rules cannot be verified by these internal checks, so checks are carried out at the border instead. These provisions have been challenged many times, and are entirely WTO compliant. Relying on the WTO is not going to give products entry into the markets of EU Member States.

Once people realise that food exports will virtually grind to a halt after Brexit, I suggested, they might start waking up. But there was also the question of imports. There would be no question of dismantling border controls for third country products but, once we leave the EU, WTO rules prohibiting discrimination would require that we apply those same checks to EU products. In this case, WTO rules – far from giving us a free pass – would create a problem that, at the moment, hasn't even been acknowledged. But with no BIP at Dover – and no space for one – imports through that ports will also be badly affected.

A few days later, I was back on the subject, retailing how the Observer was writing about potential delays in the continental port of Zeebrugge. Even then, though, there was still the same narrow emphasis on tariffs and customs procedures.

This was the time of the Conservative Party conference, and the Port of Dover had advertised there, warning that an extra two minutes on lorry inspections could lead to queues of 17 miles at Dover and similar "chaos in Calais and Dunkerque".

Once again, though, we had a complete failure to address the issue of Border Inspection Posts, where anything up to 50 percent of UK food products of animal origin would have to be inspected before being released for free circulation. At that point, I again warned that, to be WTO compliant, the UK would also have to inspect foodstuffs coming over from the EU.

In the short-term, I wrote, disruption is inevitable – but more so if people continued to fail to understand what is at stake and what was needed to mitigate the consequences of our departure from the EU.

At the end of the month, I was noting that the politicians and the media (as well as the "experts" were still failing to get to grips with the issue, with similar failures recorded in March this year.

And now, years after banging the drum, we have the Guardian finally waking up to the issue, with a piece headed "Safety inspections on foods such as tomatoes and beef seen as bigger issue than customs checks".

This is from Lisa O'Carroll, the paper's Brexit correspondent, telling us that the checks "could affect the supply of oranges, lemons, lettuce and strawberries as well as other food staples".

The details come from the annual Multimodal logistics conference in Birmingham, where John Keefe, the director of public affairs at Getlink (the new name for Eurotunnel Group) and James Hookham, deputy chief executive of the Freight Transport Association spilling (some of) the beans.

Oddly enough, there is little mention of the far more severe problem of meat checks, and Pauline Bastidon, the FTA's "head of European policy" actually overstating the problem, telling the conference: "Everything needs to be checked – animal products, animal feed, fruit and veg, raw meat, but also things like pot noodles and readymade meals with a little bit of meat".

The situation is bad enough as it is, with 20 percent of products usually being inspected, but at least there is at least recognition of the issue. 

Nevertheless, Keefe confuses phytosanitary checks (for plants and plant-derived foods) and sanitary checks (meat and meat products), and doesn't seem to realise that BIPs deal with animals and products of animal origin – the rest being dealt with at designated ports of entry.

The distinction will be important for the ports handling fruit and vegetable imports from Spain, until the amended EU formally integrates the facilities as Border Control Posts.

For all that, Keefe shows a glimmering of understanding, declaring that: "One of the things the government is significantly behind the curve on is the whole border inspection posts". "We have the cabinet talking about different customs partnerships", he says, "but what we haven’t seen yet is any kind of progress out of Defra in particular to provide us with some clear guidelines about how [border inspection posts] might develop".

Keefe is calling on the government urgently to draw up a plan of action, estimating that it could take "anything between five and 10 years to build border inspection posts to deal with the level of traffic coming across a short strait".

And that, of course, is this side of the Channel. There is the Irish border to consider, and then the authorities on the continental side must invest huge amounts to provide facilities to deal with imports from the UK, something they are reluctant to do.

Even then, it is clear that our people don't really understand the problems. Richard Christian, the policy director at Dover, says delays from checks could lead to miles-long tailbacks at the port and in Calais.

"We are open 364 days a year to keep the goods in the shops that we all enjoy. The second we stop that flow, that’s where we’ve got this problem", he says. "The amount of time to process non-EU freight – on a good day it can take 20 minutes, it can take several hours, on a bad day it can take several days. Somehow we've got to get a few hours down to two minutes otherwise there will be a perpetual queue of 17 miles".

The point, of course, is that without the inspection facilities, there won't be any delays as such. There will be nothing at all moving through the ports. The crisis in the supermarkets will be of "state of emergency" proportions, and crisis measures will have to be implemented just to keep people fed.

Sadly, therefore, we have another opportunity missed – another opportunity to tell people what the real consequences of the government's mismanagement of Brexit entails. To get there, they could just read this blog but then one suspects they'd rather gouge their eyes out with bent knitting needles than do something so sensible.

Ignorance is not bliss, it would seem when it comes to Brexit, so much as mandatory - in an environment where the ignorant make (and write) the news, and implement the policy.

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