Shipping: Where a hard Brexit is not an option

If you want to make a bit of money out of a hard Brexit invest in fluorescent jackets and clipboards. That’s the advice of Guy Platten, the chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, who today confirmed that anything less than a friction-less customs deal with the EU could lead to substantial queues at Holyhead and Dover as border officials with mountains of paperwork create substantial traffic jams.

It’s a scenario the chamber is clearly not prepared for. The negotiations between Britain and the EU are, at least as far as shipping is concerned, “beyond politics”. Having a free and seamless movement of goods works in the interest of both sides, and with a large percentage of their 170  members based in Europe there is a good deal of lobbying to be done on either side of the Channel.

Spain exports £23 billion of goods to the UK. In Germany that figure is closer to £80 billion, in Ireland it is £13 billion, and in France £28 billion. As Platten wrote in City AM, “the UK‘s colossal trade deficit with the European Union exists precisely because we are good customers”. So while negotiators in the European Commission may be able to divorce themselves from the precariousness of the EU’s own economic reality, the politicians who make up the EU Council will not.

But much of what Chamber’s Chief Exec says very much falls into the narrative of the negotiators that Britain can not pick a la carte, begging the question that if the whole table chooses “according to the menu”, does that constitute a fair deal?

Let’s Get Practical 

On a practical level, creating friction on the enormous shipment of goods transported day-to-day is something that could not be facilitated as things stand. You only have to look back to last summer to see how stricter security controls in the wake of the Nice terror attacks impacted the Port of Dover, with police helicopters drafted in to deliver more than 11,000 bottles of water to thousands of stricken motorists. Gibraltar saw the return of long queues last week as stringent document checks came in at the border as a result of new Schengen measures, an early sign of what’s to come for the UK mainland if agreements aren’t put in place.

The chief concern is the physical size of the ports. The Port of Dover handled over 2.5 million road haulage vehicles in 2016, which is a huge amount. If checks were to hold those vehicles up by four to five hours rather than passing through seamlessly that would cause big problems, and not just on the south coast. Holyhead is hardly equipped to handle delays on shipments to and from Ireland and Zeebrugge and Calais are similarly ill-equipped. If there is going to be some sort of friction, “they had better let us know soon”, Platten says.

On that note it is clear that both parties are taking some relief in talks of a three year transition arrangement that was included in a European parliament resolution, although the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, laid bare the tough path ahead for Britain as the historic process of withdrawing from the trade bloc begins. For the Chamber of Shipping and its members they hope to have some idea on the direction this is going by the end of this year.

Europe’s Loss? 

The practicalities are where the Chamber’s focus lie, because on the political front they could be hostage to fortune. If we take the EU’s word that we can’t accept one of the free movements without accepting them all as gospel then the focus has to be on how we create as little friction as possible on a practical level. But that’s not to say they aren’t lobbying.

“If it’s going to affect jobs on the continent then that’s going to get to politicians there,”  Platten says, and it’s also going to have a significant impact on European ferry operators such as Britanny Ferries, Stena Line and Irish Ferries to name just a few. The hit is clearly going to be felt both ways – on jobs, on trade and on business as a whole – and it’s an issue that Platten would like to see plateau as time goes on and pragmatism breaks out amongst all the different parties.

But are EU leaders more bothered about protecting the EU than protecting jobs and trade? It may seem like a selfish stance, but keep in mind that it was Britain who jeopardised it in the first place when we put politics ahead of practicality and voted to leave the European Union. One thing for sure is that there is going to be no winner in these negotiations, so could shipping set a precedent about how we can both practically and pragmatically meet half way?

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