The Grayling "ferrygate" story doesn't seem to want to go away, with most of the main newspapers carrying details of the Transport Secretary's interview on yesterday's BBC Radio 4 Today
The papers seem to be making more of the story than did the programme, as the part dealing with Seaborne Freight was a very short segment in a longer interview, but none of the media seem to have addressed what in fact should have caused the greatest concern.
Right up front were the throw-away lines from Grayling when he responded to the subject by claiming that he was "expecting the Channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances". He'd had "detailed discussions" with his French counterparts and they wanted to keep the Channel ports moving freely. Thus, said Grayling, "I'm confident that will happen".
Had any sentient interviewer been confronted with such claims from the Transport Secretary, less than 100 days before Brexit day, one might have expected them to clear the decks and devote the rest of the programme to taking them apart. But this is the BBC we're talking about. The claims were allowed to pass unchallenged.
The point at issue though is that, under all Brexit circumstances, bar one – where the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified and we get a transition period – there will be very significant changes to port operations, with the absolute certainty that there will be serious delays arising from the UK's newly acquired status as a third country.
That the French want to keep the Channel ports moving freely should almost go without saying, but wishing something doesn't make it so. As recently as last June
, the French National Assembly published a report on the Brexit negotiations, demonstrating a clear understanding that things were going to change, and not for the better.
Of special significance were the comments of Benoit Rochet, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, of the Strait Harbours Operations Corporation, based at Calais.
With two-thirds of containers and trailers from the continent en route
to the UK passing through French Channel ports, the concern was that the facilities were used by so many heavy goods vehicles because of the speed of service.
Operators were very well aware that there would be a reinstatement of controls and that these could lead to major queues. Stacking the lorries was not the answer: if drivers lost two to three hours waiting in a parking lot, they would turn away from the route.
On import, though, heavy goods vehicles entering the EU would have to undergo checks. Customs controls were not the issue. Veterinary and phytosanitary inspections, done by the Border Veterinary and Phytosanitary Inspection Service (SIVEP), were far more serious, leading to a requirement to produce original paper documents. This was not problematical for goods such as exotic fruits crossing the ocean, but the system doesn't work when loading takes forty minutes and the crossing times are from a half to one hour.
As regards customs administration, the information required raised a technological issue. Because of the Single Market, very little information was obtained about what exactly passed through the ports. Rochet observed: "we do not really know what goes through the port of Calais". There is no control over the goods - except for certain customs security controls. No declaration is made a priori
by the carriers.
Finally, Rochet says, some products require systematic controls. If the customs control between 0.5-1.5 percent of the goods, the products of animal or vegetable origin can give place to a systematic stop and thus to a loss of time.
Customs, he says, will be there 24 hours a day, but no SIVEP operation is open seven days a week, although we need them all. Given the nature of the traffic, we cannot tell our customers to make an appointment and, if there is no place, to spend the night in the parking lot until the next day.
Much more can be gleaned from the French newspapers, although far more than in the UK, reports seem to be hidden behind paywalls – despite generous taxpayer subsidies to the press. One gets the impression that the authorities and the port operators are only just beginning to wake up to the implications of a no-deal Brexit, and do not like what they see.
One truncated report
talks of the "death-knell" for the Dieppe-Newhaven route – or even possibly an opportunity. Uncertainty isn't confined to this side of the Channel.
In a report on the Normandy ports
, we see comparisons made. Most of the cross-Channel traffic passes through the port of Calais: nine million passengers, 1.9 million trucks per year. By contrast, the port of Caen-Ouistreham is a dwarf with one million passengers and 100,000 trucks per year, or 180,000 trucks if the ports of Cherbourg and Dieppe are added.
The Portsmouth line, run by Brittany Ferries – another of Grayling's beneficiaries - was only opened in 1986, but now two ferries operate three daily services, one of them double-rotating for a six-and-a-half hour crossing.
Antoine de Gouville, director of the port, states that: "Unlike Calais, where the crossing is very short, the economic model here is that the driver is resting during the crossing". The rest period counts throughout the journey, so it is of value.
Capacity of the ferries are between 1,700 and 2,000 passengers, 400 cars and 100 trucks. "Currently", de Gouville says, port administration centres around the loading process and the control of tickets, identities, etc. Those who disembark leave immediately, without checks.
With Brexit, he says, it will be necessary to "reverse the logic". Ferries currently disembark their hundred trucks in forty-five minutes. But even if just a documentary control taking thirty seconds is instituted, that takes fifty minutes more to unload. "These fifty minutes would make it impossible to double the rotation of the morning boat," says de Gouville. "The entire economic model of the operating company, Brittany Ferries, is at stake".
Then, he adds, there are the "Border Inspection Post/Community Point of Entry" (Pif/Pec) for products of animal and vegetable origin. Furnishing these Pif/Pec sites is the responsibility of Jerome Chauvet, in charge of the development of the port.
Because all food transport, of animal or plant origin, will require control, buildings and holding areas have to be provided, without really knowing the needs. The Agriculture Minister, Gerald Darmanin, says his administration is ready. "I want to believe it", says Chauvet, "but we still do not know how many customs and veterinarians we will have to supply".
The only consolation, he says, is that the ports like Calais or Dunkerque have the same problems, only bigger. If congestion arises from the intensity of their traffic, the Norman ports could profit from it.
With that snapshot, one at least gets the view that things really aren't going to be the same. Yet here we have Grayling saying that he is "expecting the Channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances". He then blithely talks of "putting in place a bit of extra capacity for the start of the Brexit process just to ease the pressure on the ports".
As to the Ramsgate contract given to Seaborne Freight, he makes "no apologies for supporting a new British business". The reality, he says, "is it's a tightly drawn-up contract that requires them to deliver. But I don't think there's anything wrong with the government supporting a new small business".
Asked about its absence of track record, he simply defended his action by repeating that it was "a new start-up business". The fact that the "start-up" had originally planned to have a service in place last March wasn't mentioned. Nor was it pointed out that the company was grossly under-capitalised and had broken every other promise it had made about starting dates.
Even with the Secretary being let off the hook by the state broadcaster though, this was Grayling in "ferry" land. If this truly represents the government understanding of the effects of Brexit on the Channel ports, then we are heading for disaster. The man simply isn't on this planet.