With less than three months to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, attention is focused on how to keep vital trade routes across the English Channel flowing as smoothly as possible. “I am expecting the channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances,” the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the this week.
But in the event of a no-deal Brexit (the UK leaving the EU without any formal Withdrawal Agreement and no transition period), the government‘s own advice contradicts him.
A statement issued by the Cabinet Office last month said that cross-government planning assumptions have been revised to show that, in a worst-case scenario, “there will be very significantly reduced access across the short strait [between Dover and Calais] for up to six months”.
The statement noted that, in a no-deal scenario, the EU would impose full third-country controls on people and goods entering the EU from the UK. The impact, the Cabinet Office said, would affect both imports and exports at Dover and Folkestone (home of the Channel Tunnel) because of the “frequent and closed loop nature” of the crossings.
So why has Dover become so integral to the UK‘s economic system? It is by far the biggest destination in the country for roll-on roll-off ferries (known as Ro-Ro, which means cargo is driven on and off rather than lifted by cranes). Dover handled 2.9 million units of Ro-Ro freight last year, most of which were lorries with drivers.
It is also the main access route for trade with the rest of the EU inside the single market. Lorries currently simply drive on and off ferries and are on the motorway within a matter of minutes.
But any lorries arriving from a non-EU country, such as Switzerland, are subject to longer delays. “If customs don‘t want to check anything, that would [still] delay the vehicle by about an hour or an hour and a half [while the driver waits for a decision],” Andrew Baxter, the managing director of the freight logistics company Europa Worldwide, told a House of Commons Committee last year. “If customs wanted to do a documentary check, that could delay it by up to three hours, and if there was an inspection of the goods, that could delay it by up to five hours,” he added.
Even though such checks are in the low single digits in percentage terms, it doesn‘t take much for long queues to develop in the tight confines of the port of Dover.
That‘s why the government says that, in the event of no-deal, it would minimise checks at Dover to the greatest extent possible and could, in theory, simply wave trucks through. But, as the Cabinet Office acknowledges, it cannot control what the EU will do on the other side of the Channel.