Richard North, 29/01/2021  

There is weeping and gnashing of teeth, wailing and much rending of garments as the lovely Samantha confesses to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour that her fashion brand is finding post-Brexit trading with the EU "challenging and difficult".

Asked if her company had experienced any supply chain issues since the UK agreed its post-Brexit trade deal with the EU., she said: "There's been a bit of that - I think a mixture of Covid and Brexit, actually, although there would be no issues trading with the US or outside the EU".

"Until they sort out some of [what] I hope [is] teething issues", she added, "definitely trading with the EU, if you're bringing goods into the country from outside the UK, and then trying to sell them back into Europe, that currently is challenging and difficult".

"It is", she continued, "the smaller businesses [affected] because we can't afford to have warehouses in Europe and that sort of thing. And I'm sure there are ways of sorting it out".

Concluding her confession, she then said: "It does need to be looked at because otherwise we can't grow our business [and] if we can't grow our business, it is frustrating. Unless some of the expense and cost of doing that is looked at, it will be challenging".

But, rather like her husband, albeit for different reasons, this one is away with the fayries. She hopes the difficulties she is experiencing are "teething issues" and someone will come along to smooth away her problems and make it all better.

Needless to say, she's not on her own. She shares the same delusion as the leaders of Britain's five largest business groups, although these are currently warning the government that firms face "substantial difficulties" at UK ports since Brexit, with the prospect of a "significant loss of business" if the situation is allowed to continue.

This "big five" are the usual suspects, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the manufacturers’ group Make UK, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors. Throughout the negotiations, they've been cosying up to government but now, with reality beginning to bite, they have written a worried letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, telling him that this self-same government needed to act quickly to overcome "the sizeable obstacles" faced by exporters.

Cracks are most definitely showing as the letter was published after Gove had appeared to play down the significance of the difficulties faced by businesses, and after what they described as a lack of coherent advice from government departments about "new" EU trading rules following Brexit.

This was during a meeting with Gove, which the business leaders believed was private, when the minister would only concede that some businesses were facing "challenges with specific aspects of our new trading relationship with the EU", although he did add that the government would "pull out all the stops to help them adjust".

It seems Gove, believes that simple "adjustments" will solve the problems, while the business groups want measures put in place to smooth customs procedures. Without those, they say, the situation would deteriorate.

Although being underplayed by a media which is finding it hard to keep up, there is nevertheless enough evidence out there – four weeks after the end of the transition period – to suggest that we are seeing irrevocable changes. The situation has already deteriorated and will deteriorate still further.

A flavour of that comes with a report from ITV News, which is leaving the lorry watchers on the BBC standing.

It is telling us that the majority of lorries travelling from the UK to the EU via Calais and Dunkirk have nothing in them. From this, the broadcaster is not exactly rivalling Sherlock Holmes when it deduces that trade has been significantly disrupted "since Brexit". It means, of course, the end of the transition period.

According to figures it has obtained for the week ending 24 January, an average of 3,400 lorries a day travelled from the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel to Northern France and some 65 percent were empty. At the beginning of January the rate was 75 percent. In the same week, 4,000 lorries travelled in the other direction.

These data were, provided by the Prefecture Hauts-de-France et du Nord, which also show that HGV traffic in both directions across the short strait were down 30 percent on normal flows.

Traditionally, the UK imports more than it exports to the EU so it is not unusual for trucks to return empty to France, but the proportion currently is more than double the normal rate of 30 percent. Although there may be other reasons for the downturn, Brexit is undoubtedly a significant factor.

Hauliers have been reporting that UK traders have been put off by the cost and the hassle of the new customs paperwork required to export to the EU. Hauliers complain about a general confusion about the new rules and a shortage of customs agents to process the required forms. They also say the government's IT systems aren’t reliable and have a tendency to stop working.

There are also issues with what ITV calls "customs compliance", although the broadcaster is actually referring to "official controls". Consistently, the media is unable to distinguish been the types of border controls, and applies the generic. Anyhow, at the French border, only one in ten export health Certificates has been found to be correctly completed.

We have no information, however, on the type of errors – whether these are simply incomplete forms or whether faults are being picked up at the identity check phase, when inspectors attempt to reconcile vehicle contents with the details on the forms.

With practice and increased familiarity, one might expect some improvements. Certainly, Paul-François Schira, Deputy Prefect in charge of Brexit, for the Prefecture Hauts-de-France et du Nord, sees signs of this happening. On Tuesday, 5,000 lorries crossed the English Channel in both directions, which is around 80 percent of the normal flow. On Wednesday, only 50 percent of lorries returning to France from the UK were empty.

Conformity with customs rules is improving and, despite the errors on export health certificates, the number of loads rejected has been "extremely low". Schira warns though that during February the border authorities in France would gradually begin stricter enforcement.

But one can see why the "big five" business groups are getting a tad impatient. Government spokespersons still seem to be in a world of their own, a planet even more distant than the one occupied by trade groups.

One specimen says: "Thanks to the hard work put in by hauliers and traders to get ready for the changes that came as a result of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, there are no queues in Dover, disruption at the border has so far been minimal and goods have been flowing efficiently".

Only a moron could suggest that the lack of queues indicates success. It has long been known that many hauliers would hold off until they saw the lie of the land. But then staff is so difficult to get these days.

Business will, nevertheless, be reassured by the government telling them that it is "committed to ensuring that businesses get the support they need to trade effectively with Europe, and seize new opportunities as we strike trade deals with the world's fastest growing markets".

Fortunately, help is at hand for the beleaguered British government with news of an impending French strike in the Channel ports, starting next Thursday.

This is to be part of a general strike being coordinated with several other unions, in response to "disastrous government decisions" taken in tackling the Covid pandemic, with the unions claiming a stimulus package was simply "tax cuts for the rich".

Chaos in the ports, if the strike goes ahead, will provide perfect cover for the Johnson administration, which is already skilled in blaming everyone else for its faults and inadequacies. It will provide an exceptionally good opportunity for Johnson's new ministerial task force set up to help Scottish seafood businesses.

Relieved from finding solutions to intractable problems, it can simply blame the French, which will make a change from blaming the EU, providing endless copy for the media which is otherwise finding it difficult to report on Brexit-related issues.

Johnson may be an incompetent prime minister (and indeed he is), but he is also a lucky one. For a short time at least, he might be able to magic away his little local difficulties.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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