Home Flexcit Impact Assessments Monographs Contact Archive

Brexit: a sense of unease

2021-01-09 07:49:33

Yesterday, carried over into today, marked the point at which the legacy media stepped aside from their lorry-watching – in expectation of huge queues – and started to report on the slow-motion train wreck emerging from the end of the transition period.

One of the first pieces I spotted yesterday was from the Guardian (widely used because of the absence of a paywall), which recounted the trials and tribulations of truck driver, Roger White.

Mr White arrived in France at 2.30pm on Tuesday with a truckload of hard cheese from Somerset. Before Brexit, the Guardian says (although it means the end of the transition period), he would have rolled off the Eurotunnel train and carried on up the A16 to Belgium, unloading his wares a few hours later at his ultimate destination in Utrecht.

But, we were told, 24 hours after setting foot on European soil, the 69-year-old driver from Yeovil was still sitting in his cab in the Eurotunnel compound in Calais after being asked to reverse into a special unloading bay at a newly built border control post for sanitary and phytosanitary checks (SPS) checks on food. "I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon and I am stuck here until God knows when. I have to wait until I am cleared to go", he said.

White, according to the paper, knew there was trouble ahead when he drove off the shuttle and the electronic display assigned him the orange lane instead of the green, indicating he would be subjected to an inspection by authorities. Remarkably, he comments: "I think they are picking on the English trucks maybe", as there was nothing wrong with the cheese. "Just missing paperwork", he said.

One might sympathise with the plight of Mr White, but somewhere in the chain of events which led to him being delayed for 24 Hours in Calais lies an extraordinary level of stupidity in allowing a high-value cargo to be sent to France without – as White puts it – the necessary "paperwork".

After all, the moment Mrs May – back in January 2017 – decided we were no longer going to be part of the Single Market, it was a matter of certainty that the full SPS regime for products of animal origin was going to apply to UK exports to EU Member States.

I wrote about the regime in detail in January 2017, and although the piece was focused on the meat industry, it is very similar for all products of animal origin.

Since there are no exceptions for any third country – which the UK was to become – and the requirements were sketched out in the Commission's notice to stakeholders, there can be no excuse for despatching such a load without the required "paperwork".

Yet, it seems, Mr White has not been alone in his misfortune. The Telegraph - relying on "industry sources" – tell us that French officials have warned the majority of lorries arriving into the country from the UK with food products are not meeting "new" EU requirements around phytosanitary (SPS) controls.

Of course, these are not new requirements – just newly-applied to Great Britain (UK minus Northern Ireland). Thus, it is not as if UK vendors are having to deal with something totally new. Anyone familiar with shipping products of animal origin from a third country (such as Australia) to the EU should be able to advise. And, I believe, the UK government has an Australian personage on its staff.

But that has not stopped one industry insider telling the Telegraph that, "The French quite rightly are fed up with us". They are saying that "there is so much stuff coming in that is non-compliant with the paperwork that it can't continue".

Says this [anonymous] insider, "We need operational detail on exactly what is not working. This all boils down to the fact that we did not have properly tested systems in place before January and is absolutely predictable".

There is, apparently, a document which has been circulated to British hauliers, which lists five areas that [French] customs officials say are leading to disruption at the UK-France border.

These include hauliers failing to fill out a specific box in departure declarations, changing destinations at the last moment, failing to provide the correct notification for agrifoods and lacking the original export health certificates, as well as failing to organise an agent to handle SPS paperwork on arrival in France.

These are pretty fundamental failures and one wonders what companies and their trade associations have been doing since 2017 to prepare for the inevitable that was going to happen, deal or no deal, with the government having published guidance since November 2016.

Unsurprisingly, we are thus seeing Michael Gove warning businesses to brace for "significant disruption" at French ports, which have been ordered to "crack down" on lorries arriving from Britain with incorrect paperwork, as from Monday.

This comes as business leaders are complaining that "post-Brexit red tape" is already hampering the flow of trade across the Channel, eliciting a response from Gove, who says that the government would "redouble" its efforts to communicate changes to firms and hauliers.

He adds that the impact of new EU trading arrangements would be felt most firmly on the "Dover-Calais route", with figures released yesterday showing 700 lorries travelling through Kent had already been turned away at the border since 1 January.

The majority of these refusals, though, have been due to coronavirus testing issues rather than non-compliance. But the Cabinet Office says that heightened traffic in the coming days means that disruption is likely to intensify.

And in France, where officials are said to have shown leniency to hauliers arriving from the UK in recent days, it is claimed that port authorities, carriers and operators have been instructed to start turning back lorries if they are found to be non-compliant.

However, what might help in the short-term is a change in the terminology. The use of the phrase "red tape" somehow trivialises the issue, more so when we get The Times referring to the "fine print" and the "burden of extra paperwork".

The paperwork, in most respects, is only a part of the regime which includes rules for certification of products, conformity assessment, inspections, sampling and testing of goods.

These complex and rigorous formalities are the new normal and are very far from trivial. Exporters and shippers need to treat them seriously, and accept that compliance is now part of the cost of doing business in Europe. To dismiss them as "paperwork" or "bureaucracy" does not do justice to the scale of the problem confronting business. Nor is there any value in calling for pragmatism. Far from taking back control, we are no longer in control.

Sadly, for some, the cost will be too great, not helped at all by increased shipping costs which are combining with the hike in transactional costs to create a perfect storm.

For one computer manufacturer, for instance, it is claimed that, six months ago they could get a container of parts shipped to the UK for between £2-2.5k. A month ago it was £8k and yesterday they were quoted £16,500. One of their gaming PCs has gone from £1,599 to £1,849 in a month.

But, as with paperwork, costs (and delays) are only the tip of the iceberg. Scottish fishing is being particularly badly hit, with customers pulling out in their droves. Other customers cannot be serviced. Elsewhere, firms are simply relocating, as with the BASF Teeside plant where hundreds of jobs are to be lost as production moves to France. And they are not on their own.

Shortages and waste also contribute to the picture in a scenario which could last for years. Says Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents chilled transport and storage companies, there is a "growing problem and sense of unease" among its members.

Anyone seriously studying the situation will share that unease. This is only just starting and even now we cannot predict where this emerging crisis will take us.

Also published on Turbulent Times.