Richard North, 07/01/2019  

Belatedly, the Booker column has been published, with a short Brexit segment observing that, after Watergate and Climategate, we now have "Ramsgate".

At one level, this is the curious little tale. It tells us how, as part of the Government's contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, Chris Grayling's Department for Transport has promised £13.8 million to a virtually penniless company to reopen a very limited ferry service between Ramsgate and Ostend, to help replace the projected very severe reduction in traffic through the Dover-Calais corridor.

With few staff and owning no ships, says Booker, it seems this company is rewriting that old music hall song to read: "We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, we haven't got the men, we haven't got the ships, but at least we've been promised the money".

But there is a further much more serious twist to this tale, which has been widely missed. The Government's own worst-case scenario envisages that Dover- Calais traffic could be cut by 88 percent. That is from the current 81,000 truck movements a week to fewer than 10,000.

Expert analysis of the £107 million allocated by Grayling to set up substitute ferry routes suggests that these could at best provide only 3,700 truck movements a week, leaving a massive potential shortfall, which could, over six months, cost the UK about £100 billion in lost business.

Heaven knows who Mr Grayling gets to do his maths, but does he really think that, in addition to all the other anticipated possible losses to our economy, taking this massive further hit is not significant? As on so much else, this man seems to live permanently in a land of make-believe.

That indeed seems to be the case, not least because the whole concept of additional ferry capacity is fundamentally flawed. Even if Seaborne Freight could acquire additional ships, the extra movements would not deliver extra freight. They would simply move existing lorries by different routes to the continent where they would experience exactly the same problems as the traffic on the Dover corridor.

Those who would argue that we could weather the loss of much of our cross-Channel trade, dismissing it as "temporary disruption", need to address the potential level of damage we could suffer, and assure us that we could survive the effects of a £100 billion hit on the UK economy, taking out key sections of economic activity.

However, not only is there lacking any attempt to explain how we would manage in this event, the main response seems to be one of denial. Diverse parties simply reject the idea that the port system is at risk from a no-deal Brexit.

That includes the Secretary of State for Transport stating that he was "expecting the Channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances", with the oaf joining in the chorus.

This wishful thinking is at the heart of the matter: if the "ultra" Brexiteers can maintain their belief that the port system will be unaffected by a no-deal, then there is little cause for concern. And it is here that the likes of Peter Lilley concentrate their arguments.

To any honest student, though, the evidence suggesting that there will be serious problems is overwhelming. In previous pieces, I have offered many different sources that point to trouble ahead. All Lilley can do is offer a quote from the prefecture of the Hauts-de-France region, from 18 July, and a BBC news report from late October.

Wishful thinking aside, though. the Commission Contingency Plan, published 19 December, unequivocally states that "if the Withdrawal Agreement is not ratified, all relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date".

This will include Regulation (EU) 2017/625 on "official controls", which deal with the requirement for Border Inspection Posts (to be re-named Border Control Posts), with the mandatory inspection of foods of animal origin, at specified levels.

There are actually three systematic levels of control: documentation and identity checks; physical checks of the goods; and laboratory, etc., checks. For the first level, 100 percent checking is required while the level of physical checking varies according to the food type. Laboratory, etc., testing is ad hoc, based on past experience and level of risk.  

Set out in Commission Decision 94/360/EC, which is still in force, Annex I specifies and inspection rate of 20 percent for such things as fresh meat and offal, whole eggs, fish products, lard and rendered fat. Poultry and rabbit meat, milk and milk products and – surprisingly – honey, have a higher rate of inspection, at a frequency of 50 percent.

Aware of the requirements, on 3 October, the French government published a draft law empowering it to take emergency measures to deal with a no-deal Brexit.

The explanatory statement noted that the no deal Brexit "would imply a reinstatement of the checks on goods and passengers to and from the United Kingdom", and in particular "would also involve a reinstatement of veterinary and phytosanitary controls at the borders of the European Union for live animals, plants and animal and plant products from the United Kingdom".

It also noted that veterinary and phytosanitary border controls were governed by European regulations and must be carried out in dedicated installations, the border control posts, which have an approval issued by the European Commission. In a rider, it added that: "Should derogations be allowed under European Union law, a legislative provision would be needed to comply with these derogations".

As regards the present situation, border posts were identified at Le Havre, Dunkirk, Saint Malo and Brest. However, they did not have the capacity to deal with all the batches coming from the UK, nor the approved facilities for all types of goods. In addition, Roscoff, Cherbourg, Caen-Ouistreham, Dieppe and Calais, as well as the Channel Tunnel, do not have border posts.

To fulfil their obligations, port operators would need to provide premises adapted to the nature and volume of the flow for goods from the UK, with the possibility of "restricted access zones" for certain entry points.

Also noted was the unarguable truth that, "carrying out these checks will take a significant amount of time, which will slow down the flow of traffic and may therefore quickly lead to congestion in the port, rail and road infrastructures".

In order to maintain the fluidity of the port and ensure the safety of the various convoys, adequate parking areas would have to be created and improvements needed would include the construction of roads, car parks, buildings, control areas , and the installation of any equipment necessary for carrying out the controls concerned.

More in hope than expectation, one assumes, the statement says that these works will have to be completed before Brexit day. To that effect, the law allows for derogations, "particularly in terms of development, urban planning, expropriation for public purpose, preservation of heritage, roads and transport, public ownership, public commissions, rules applicable to seaports, public participation and environmental assessment, in order to adapt them to the urgency of these operations".

To amplify the situation, the provisions were considered on 3 December by a special committee of the National Assembly , which took evidence from Ms Céline Gauer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission, in charge of policy coordination. Asked about the possibility of allowing some flexibility in the application of border controls, Ms Gauer agreed that there was indeed flexibility for certain types of checks that can be made, subject to securing the containers between the exit of the tunnel and the point at which the checks will be made. But, she said:
There is, however, one important caveat in terms of flexibility: it concerns veterinary and phytosanitary controls, taking into account the major risk posed by these imports for animal health and the safety and health protection (SPS) status of the importing state - and in the first place France, which is the point entry of imports. Nobody wants, obviously, new cases of mad cow disease to appear in France simply because controls are too lax. Veterinary checks will therefore remain extremely strict.
This brought a deputy, Mr Vincent Bru, into the fray, arguing that border inspection posts "are notoriously insufficient to carry out such checks". The draft law, he said, provided for derogations in order to be able to reinstate these controls outside these posts and points of entry, and not necessarily at the time of the introduction of goods into our territory. Since such measures had to be adapted to Community provisions, he asked whether the European Commission intended to modify and adapt certain rules.

And on this, Ms Gauer could not have been more explicit. Quoting the relevant passage in full, she said:
With regard to border inspection posts, there will be no derogations. What types of border controls are we talking about? The most stringent are veterinary controls. And again, we have to distinguish between products of animal origin and live animals. Products of animal origin must be subject to three types of control: a documentary check - you have to know what happens in the container; an identity check - we were told that they were boxes of corned beef but is it really?; and a physical check - opening the boxes, looking at what's inside, doing lab tests and making sure it's not dangerous to the consumer's health.

Let us never forget that the United Kingdom still has very important trade flows with many third countries. So we are not just ensuring the status and the respect of the rules of hygiene of what is produced in the United Kingdom but also of what is imported from all over the world. There is a real health safety issue. Of these three controls, only the first two are absolutely systematic. The third is the one which really takes time and is really complex - opening the box of corned beef and doing tests in the laboratory - depends on the risk, analysed according to the nature of the product. This control can also, however, be extremely limited, especially for products really coming from the United Kingdom. It is therefore not necessary to over dramatise the question of controls.

As for the control of products that are not of animal origin, it can very well be done at the point of arrival of the shipment rather than the port. However, precautionary measures may be taken, such as affixing seals, to ensure that the cargo is not handled between the point of entry into the EU and verification.

It is in the control of living animals where we are most strict. Few British and New Zealand sheep arrive at our borders but - given the seriousness of the diseases they may carry, the ease with which they can be transmitted and the impact they would have immediately on the exports of France - should contamination ever affect the SPS status of the territory, we cannot afford to give up these controls. It will therefore not be possible to derogate from or amend the applicable legislation at European level. On the other hand, we will naturally be able to show all the necessary flexibility for the least dangerous products, in particular by allowing these to be some distance from the point of entry.
Lilley, in his latest report, asserts that the French will create a Border Inspection Post to inspect live animals and food 12 kms from Calais to avoid congestion. But clearly, according to Ms Gauer, that cannot be the case. There are small concessions in relation to low-risk products that are not of animal origin, but that is the full extent of any "flexibility". Lilley is being vastly over-optimistic, claiming something which will not happen.

One can see here absolutely unarguable evidence that control posts will be required at the points of entry, and a high level of inspection will be required. The French are fully aware that, "carrying out these checks will take a significant amount of time, which will slow down the flow of traffic and may therefore quickly lead to congestion in the port, rail and road infrastructures". Grayling's comments are farcical and any attempt to downplay the problem is ill-founded.

And yet, we are fully aware that there are no firm plans in place for the provision or expansion of control posts at the nine French posts which take traffic from the UK. Diverting traffic away from Calais will thus have little effect, and even Ostend will do no good. It too is without a control post, so Seaborne Freight can dredge Ramsgate as much as they like (pictured). It will make no difference.

Even the better-prepared Dutch are anticipating problems, and then there are all the other goods to consider. If products of animal origin are the "tip of the spear", there is a long shaft to follow.

While Mrs May would have it that if a Brexit deal is rejected, UK will be in uncharted territory, the reality is that the outcome is actually quite clear. And it all points to one thing: a no-deal scenario is not a credible option.

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