Richard North, 24/10/2018  

Finally, it seems to be dawning on the dismal crew of politicians in our government that a "no deal" Brexit is not such a good idea after all.

This realisation apparently came yesterday after the cabinet had been told that some 30 percent of all Britain's food requirements are met from imports from other EU countries, with 2.5 million heavy goods vehicles passing through the port of Dover each year.

According to David Lidington, Mrs May's de facto deputy, under a "no-deal" scenario, the Dover-Calais route could be running at only 12-25 percent of its normal capacity for up to six months. Thus, the UK is drawing up plans to charter ships to bring in food and medicines in the event of us crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Thus, Chris Grayling, transport secretary, has discussed with government colleagues the possibility of chartering ships, or space in ships, to bring supplies into other British ports, thus avoiding the Dover-Calais bottleneck.  Government officials say the idea would be to charter ships to use less congested sea routes. "We're talking about bringing in critical supplies like food, medicines, maybe car parts", says one official.

The Financial Times, though, had it that this news was "greeted with disbelief" at what was described as a stormy meeting of the cabinet, despite the fact that this outcome would come as no surprise to anyone who has given the matter the least bit of thought.

Clearly, cabinet ministers are not used to thinking about such things as they actually needed to be told that the heavily used Dover-Calais route could quickly become blocked by new customs controls on the French side – the proximate cause of any reduction in capacity – hence the need to seek alternative ways of bringing in "critical supplies".

Incidentally, it is a measure of the reporting that the reference is made to "customs controls" rather than the more generic "border controls" which include such things as phytosanitary checks – which are not and never have been part of the customs regime.

Be that as it may, the cabinet meeting saw ministers "divided" on the measures needed. One source is said to have claimed that there was "an almighty row", with Mrs May urging her ministers to back her attempts to secure a breakthrough.

Nevertheless, one person briefed on the plans took the view that: "The idea of the government running ferry services is slightly farcical". But at least it is conceded that, if the UK left the EU under WTO rules, different customs jurisdictions would apply to both and they would be expected to carry out checks on trade across the English Channel.

However, there still seems to be a degree of confusion over the reasons for any action. A government official says: "Whatever we do at our end", he says, "the French could cause chaos if they carry out checks at their end", adding: "Dover-Calais would be the obvious pinch point. The French would say they were only applying the rules".

Eurosceptic Tories, on the other hand – as conveyed by the Financial Times - claim that Paris would not allow interference with the Dover-Calais route because of the economic damage and disruption it would cause in the Calais area of northern France.

Neither of these groups, it would appear, are capable of understanding that the imposition of border controls is a necessary – and automatic – consequence of the UK leaving the EU and acquiring the status of a "third country".

Still less is there any sentience from the likes of Tom Newton Dunn in The Sun, who reports under the headline: "France threatens to block Calais port to the UK if we refuse to pay £39bn divorce bill in a No Deal Brexit scenario".

France, Dunn writes, "has the power to spark huge delays for UK-bound lorries importing factory parts for 'just in time' supply chains such as car factories". He adds: "And French customs officials would draw a halt to a large chunk of Britain's food exports from entering France".

He has a cabinet minister telling The Sun: "We can spend whatever we want to prepare on our side of the Channel, but we are completely powerless to compel the French to do the same, and that is a very serious vulnerability for us".

Yet, the French, in applying the rules, will not be being "difficult", and nor will they have any choice in the matter. As long as they are part of the European Union, they are obliged to implement the Union Customs Code (UCC) and the rest of the border controls which apply to the external border.

Of perhaps more significance is that the government appears to believe that hiring ships can in any way compensate for port disruption – or is even a good way of addressing the issue.

As regards food supplies, much of what will be handled is perishable. Transferring these goods from the Calais-Dover route, equipped to handle high volumes of ro-ro traffic, would require a change to container transport, as there are not the facilities elsewhere to handle driver-accompanied loads.

This would add days to transport times and substantially limit the types of goods that could be handled, as well as increasing costs. It would no longer be feasible to transport foods with very short shelf-lives.

Moreover, not all suppliers could cope with the changes in shipping arrangements or with routing to different ports with entirely different schedules and different administrative requirements.

Shippers would also lose the great advantage of the Calais-Dover route - the frequency of ferries. Rarely does one have to wait more than half an hour even when turning up without a booking. It is unlikely that government-chartered ships could match this.

Then, there are altogether different problems for different types of goods. For medicines, largely, we will be able to rely on products manufactured in the UK so we will need to deal with consignments from mainland Europe (and Ireland) for some of our needs.

Here, the problem will be port congestion, as there will be little need for the French authorities to check outgoing loads. But for the sorts of high-value low-density products involved, it might be better to send them air cargo – assuming that aircraft are still flying. Perhaps this is a tacit admission that commercial flights will also be disrupted.

However, as I've written before, the real answer might be simply to control exports from the UK which use Dover. If the rate at which lorries are admitted to the port is matched to the rate at which they are cleared in Calais, then goods bound for the UK will generally get an unhindered passage, even if ferries are running to less than capacity.

Alternatively, as is done at present with immigration, some loads could be cleared by French officials before they left the UK. There is a possibility of using the existing Channel Ports (Stop 24) customs facility at Folkestone Services. Some limited expansion might also be an option – although we would probably have to bear the costs.

Another possibility, on the French side, is to ship goods onwards from Calais to Dunkirk or Lille, for examination at those sites, using the well-established "inland port" transfer system.

The crucial issue then becomes the slowdown in the volume of goods exported to destinations in EU Member States. But since the choice is between disruption of imported and exported goods, or just exported goods, this is the least-worst option.

Where we need to be worried, it would seem, is in the lack of sophistication in the contingency planning. The idea of the UK government hiring ships to bring relief to a beleaguered Britain sounds all very dramatic but, as a practical proposition, is unlikely to be workable. Traffic flow management is something much more likely to work, keeping the roads, ports and ferries open for essential incoming goods.

It is also more than a little worrying that, only now are cabinet ministers coming to grips with the realities of a "no deal" scenario. These should have been explored in depth before Mrs May gave her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, so that she would have been aware of the consequences of dropping out of the Single Market.

As it stands, even with a free trade deal, there are going to be border checks, making this option little better than the "no deal" scenario. All the withdrawal agreement and transition period will do is give us (and EU Member States) more time to prepare.

There again, perhaps the real reason for HM government wanting to hire ships is so that it can transport cabinet ministers, their dependants and senior civil servants to the safety of a neutral country, where they will no longer be in danger of being lynched.

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