Why Dover can handle a ‘no-deal’ Brexit

Why Dover can handle a ‘no-deal’ Brexit

It is often claimed that a no-deal Brexit would cause chaos at UK ports, with long delays at critical bottlenecks such as Dover and motorways turned into vast lorry parks. Indeed, we are told that any weakening of our ties with the EU would inevitably disrupt supplies of time-sensitive goods, such as fresh foods and medicines, and cripple businesses that rely on complicated cross-border supply chains. Fortunately, all these warnings have more than a dash of ‘Project Fear’.

Let’s start, though, with the element of truth. There are some potentially valid concerns about the non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that would be erected if the UK exits in March 2019 without a deal. These include logistical barriers, such as delays caused by physical customs and regulatory checks, and additional administrative hurdles, including the need to comply with ‘rules of origin’ and new licensing requirements for vehicles and drivers.

Most attention has focused on Dover, which handles 17% of all UK trade in goods worldwide. According to evidence compiled by the House of Commons library, Dover processes up to 10,000 incoming and outgoing freight vehicles a day. Currently, 99% of these originate in the EU and are processed in around two minutes, but checks on non-EU trucks typically take 20 minutes. The UK Freight Transport Association has estimated that an additional two-minute delay, on average, could cause a 17-mile queue on both sides of the Channel.     

These risks obviously need to be taken seriously. Indeed, the Government is already beefing up contingency plans to keep the M20 flowing in the event of any future problems at Dover, and recommending that suppliers add to precautionary stocks of critical goods, including medicines. Car makers have also suggested that they might reschedule planned maintenance shutdowns to coincide with the period of maximum risk.

Nonetheless, fears that ‘no deal’ would result in substantial disruption at ports (or Eurotunnel) are exaggerated. The key point is that they assume a significant proportion of lorries crossing the Channel would be subject straightaway to the same checks as those from non-EU countries. This is very unlikely, for three reasons.

The first is legal. It has been argued (notably by Economists for Free Trade) that new UK-EU NTBs would be unnecessary, and even illegal under WTO rules, given that exports from both sides will still be made to the same standards immediately after the UK’s departure from the EU. Others have countered that some additional checks would still be required, or else the parties would be in breach of the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation principle. But there is at least broad agreement that checks could be limited. There is certainly no legal requirement to inspect every vehicle, or to carry out every check at the border itself. It is also not as if there are currently no checks at all.

The second is economic. Even French officials have stressed that it would be in their country’s own economic interests to minimise any additional delays. In particular, they have dismissed fears of a Calais ‘go-slow and suggested that as few as 1% of UK lorries would be subject to a physical check (my own crude calculation is that an additional two-minute delay, on average, would require at least 10% of UK lorries to be subject to a 20-minute check).

The third reason is practical, and may well be decisive. Put simply, neither the UK nor the EU has the physical infrastructure, or enough officials, to check every vehicle anyway, or even a significant proportion. In this respect at least, the lack of preparedness could actually be a blessing in disguise.

A more pragmatic approach could also help solve other problems. For example, in the absence of any alternative arrangements, UK haulage companies would no longer be able to operate in EU countries under existing EU rules. This is much the same as the problem facing the aviation industry: if no mitigating action is taken, ‘lorries cannot be driven’, in the same way that ‘planes won’t fly’.

However, the EU has already made a reciprocal offer to the UK in respect of air traffic rights and the validity of aviation safety certificates in the event of ‘no deal’. The EU has continued to take a tough line on road transport, but an important precedent has been set. A similar solution could presumably be found if existing rules on road transport would significantly disrupt trade from which both parties derive large economic benefits.

What’s more, any initial disruption should be short-lived. For example, border delays could be reduced in future by the sort of ‘maximum facilitation’ (MaxFac) proposals that many have already suggested as a means of reducing the costs of customs clearance. The recent parliamentary testimony from customs experts Hans Maessen and Lars Karlsson should be required reading here (and for those who still believe membership of a customs union is the only way to avoid a hard border in Ireland).

Crucially, too, any problems created by a ‘no deal’ in March 2019 do not have to be permanent. Leaving on WTO terms could simply be an alternative stepping stone to a comprehensive free trade agreement that would keep any additional frictions to a minimum, rather than the standstill ‘transition period’ and Irish backstop proposed in the current Withdrawal Agreement.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we should dismiss the concerns of UK businesses entirely. Leaving the EU in March without a deal would clearly create a lot of challenges. But there are also many good reasons why even the initial disruption at ports should be much less than feared.