The government is refusing to open talks on solving the Brexit exporting crisis until the European Union feels “some of the pain”, an industry leader said.
Pinpointing the delayed introduction of UK border controls in April as “another potential car crash”, the head of Scottish Food and Drink warned MPs on Wednesday that “the clock is ticking”.
But, James Withers added: “The mood music I pick up from government officials is that there is a reluctance to engage with the EU until April.
“In other words, that they need to feel some of the pain that we are feeling before it will come to the table.
“I’m massively worried about that – that is the same mentality of brinksmanship and of last minute negotiation that failed spectacularly at the end of last year.”
Withers urged ministers to “learn from that, see what is coming” and start talking now to “find practical solutions”.
His criticism came as fish exporters lamented a string of errors in the post-Brexit trade, hurriedly struck on Christmas Eve, in evidence to the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.
Deliveries have been hit with a mountain of new red tape, with requirements for hard-to-get health checks and customs documents causing orders to be left rotting at ports, while Brussels has warned that a ban on shellfish trade is “indefinite”.
The chief executive of the Scottish Seafood Association, Jimmy Buchan, said it was beyond him why the government had agreed to rules that were “crippling” businesses.
Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Europe Committee, Withers added that squabbling over whether to use red or blue ink on post-Brexit customs forms is among the problems plaguing exporters.
“You think you get the right colour of ink and you’re told that the signature needs to be in a different colour to the colour that the letterhead is on,” he said.
“Part of the challenge here – particularly the other side of the channel – is you’ve got a lot of young, inexperienced customs agents.
“You can get a view on colour on one particular day, but then the shift changes the next day in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Calais or Dunkirk, and you get a different kind of interpretation.
“It’s extremely difficult for businesses to plan and that’s why this hasn’t just been an issue for small businesses; even big multinational companies who have got export departments, who have got export paperwork in their DNA because they sell into North America and China, have found the system’s fallen down and loads are getting held up.”
He added: “The problems are multiple and at no one point, so it’s very difficult to target the solution very quickly at one thing.
“It’s like whack-a-mole: a problem crops up, you hit it on the head and fix it and then another two crop up at the same time.”