While the UK officially exited the European Union on January 31, the impact of its departure has yet to fully manifest itself on either side of the English Channel.
The negotiations on a new trading relationship to mitigate the fallout of the decision, taken four years ago, are locked in a stalemate, leaving the true cost of quitting the union as yet unquantified
This will all change on December 31 when the transition period ends and Brexit becomes a reality, with or without a deal to soften the economic blow.
For observers of the Brexit process, the last four years have been an endless purgatory of political brickmanship and negotiations with question marks on many issues still left unanswered.
For the major ports on Europe’s western shores, however, the schism between the UK and the bloc has meant that meticulous planning for Britain’s eventual departure has been underway since the EU referendum result in June 2016.
What has it taken for port authorities to get ready for Brexit and what impact will these new changes have on trade?
Authorities at Europe’s largest port are more resigned to the eventuality of Brexit in any form than fazed by an increasingly likely no-deal scenario.
“A trade deal or no trade deal, it is irrelevant for our preparations. We have always been preparing for the UK to become a third country, with or without a trade deal,” Leon Willems, a spokesman for the Port of Rotterdam, told Euronews.
Rotterdam has been fastidious in making the port Brexit-ready. As the deadline for a deal approaches, these preparations are becoming more and more visible.
As well as a multi-million euro investment in an IT system, the use of which is mandatory for importers and exporters to notify the port of cargoes to be shipped to and from Rotterdam, the port has put in place buffer parking locations for UK-bound trucks to ease potential congestion at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal.
“We have about 700 truck spaces available. They are only available for truck drivers who have been sent away from the ferry terminals,” said Willems.
“We have been campaigning vigorously over the last year and a half, but also in recent months, to get the attention of traders, exporters, business but also truck drivers of the upcoming changes,” he added.
“We feel confident about the preparations on the ground, the IT preparations, and so it works. I’m not so sure it works on the other end of the Channel but there you go.”
Port authorities are under no illusions about what the UK leaving the EU will entail for the port. “We are not naïve. If a country exits the customs union, and even if there is a trade deal but most certainly when there is not, there will be barriers to trade,” said Willems.
“There will be tariffs, quotas, and the like, and trade barriers are always a detriment to trade volumes. So, we anticipate that if there is a no deal, it could end up somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent of goods volume passing through the Port of Rotterdam”.
In terms of volume, Antwerp is the UK’s second-largest maritime trading partner. Each year, between 16 and 17 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (Mio TEU) of goods – mostly liquid bulk (free-flowing commodities like crude oil and liquified gas) as well as containerised and conventional cargoes (perishables, steel, building products, and so on) – are shipped between the UK and Antwerp.
As such, the Belgian port is likely to remain key to Britain’s future economic prosperity.
“Contrary to most other ports in the Hamburg-Le Havre range, Antwerp imports substantially more than it exports to the UK, which highlights again its gateway function for UK exports to continental Europe,” Wim Dillen, the International Development Manager at the Port of Antwerp, told Euronews.
Much like the port authorities in Rotterdam, Antwerp began to lay the groundwork early for the UK’s exit from the EU. “The Port of Antwerp started preparing itself for Brexit only a few weeks after the 2016 referendum and believes it is ready for the new relationship, regardless of the outcome of the trade negotiations,” Dillen said.
“We do not expect major disruptions in our port, given the fact that we are primarily a liquid bulk and container port in relation to the UK-EU trade, as such, less vulnerable for congestion than coastal ferry-ports.”
That is not to say that the port has not made significant adjustments to its operations, commissioning a multi-disciplinary task force in the wake of the EU referendum to carry out “a thorough impact analysis in order to limit potential damage and define possible opportunities”. The result has been a carefully-geared plan to both represent the port’s interests in the UK as well as prepare for Brexit on the ground; from PR and online media campaigns for raising awareness to increased customs capacity.
So, what, if anything, will change for the Port of Antwerp post-Brexit?
“We expect there to be a shift towards more container traffic between the UK and the EU because it will be more (cost) efficient,” said Dillen. “As Antwerp is a large container port, with a deep inland location close to the largest consumption and production centres of continental Europe, we do expect that gradually there will be more container traffic to and from Antwerp.”
Of the three largest European ports, Hamburg is perhaps the least likely to feel the negative impact of Brexit, according to Bengt van Beuningen, Director of Communications at Port of Hamburg Marketing.
“Only three per cent of all seaborne cargo handled in the Port of Hamburg is related to UK trade,” he told Euronews. “Changes because of a deal or no-deal Brexit will not have a great impact on the port’s business”.
On the contrary, Hamburg may well prove to be a net beneficiary of the UK’s decision to leave the bloc. Given most of the trade which flows through the port originates from or departs for China, followed closely by the United States, Hamburg is already well-versed in handling predominantly non-EU shipping.
“German customs in Hamburg do not expect any problems because the customs in the port are used to and experienced in handling non-EU-cargo. Deal or no deal is not a problem for the Hamburg customs,” van Beuningen explained.
“The customs IT systems are already in use to handle EU cargo and non-EU cargo in Hamburg without any extra investment in new procedures. Bottlenecks will not be seen at the port”.
The UK currently represents a small fraction of the port’s business – but perhaps not for long. The economic realities of Brexit will mean that for ease, the UK will need to seek easier ways to import and export goods.
With road freight already stacking up in long queues at Channel ports, even before the December 31 deadline for an EU-UK trade agreement, it is far more likely that Brexit will in some ways present itself as a business opportunity for Germany’s largest port.
“This could be a good chance for shippers and logistics companies to avoid bottlenecks in ferry traffic crossing the Channel,” van Beuningen continued. “Shipping, for example, general cargo in containers by ship via Hamburg and then using truck, rail or barge for further hinterland transport should be an attractive alternative to direct truck transport”.
Given its proximity to the English coast, the port of Calais in the Hauts-de-France region is on the sharp edge of the Brexit sword. The bulk of cross-Channel traffic between the UK and the continent convenes in this narrow corridor, with 12,000 heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) making the crossing every day.
As has been the case for the arterial roads leading to Dover in recent weeks, the approaches to Calais have been jammed by trucks bound for the UK. Concern over the potential for chaos already presenting itself on both sides of the Channel has provoked French hauliers to demand urgent changes to infrastructure in the Hauts-de-France region to deal with delays.
In France, in particular, traffic jams have left stationary HGVs vulnerable to migrants trying to reach the UK, with numerous reports already of tarpaulins being ripped open.
The region has already spent more then €40 million over the last two years on infrastructure projects, including additional truck parking, customs control points, new roads and signposting.
They have also recruited 700 more agents – including new customs officers and border police – to deal with the increased customs formalities related to the UK becoming a third country. Perhaps the biggest development is a smart border system that aims to ensure the fluid flow of traffic between the two countries rather than systematically checking each vehicle.
Of course, Calais is not the only Channel port facing disruption. The HAROPA and Ports de Normandie authorities – overseeing Le Havre and Cherbourg, Caen-Ouistreham and Dieppe respectively – have joined forces to prepare for Brexit.
Like the Hauts-de-France region, the authorities in Normandy have progressed new infrastructure projects to deal with additional customs requirements, which have been trialled in recent weeks to test their endurance.
“These tests have been satisfactory and allow (us) to approach 1 January 2021 with confidence. The two main objectives have been achieved: smooth traffic flow, operational controls,” the ports said in a joint statement on December 10.
While it has proven successful in initial tests, the collective port authorities in France are under no illusion that the success of the new customs process depends largely on reciprocal actions on the other side of the Channel and the preparedness of individual businesses and hauliers.
“The success of this test rests on operators planning ahead for their crossing and synchronising their actions,” the statement said. “To reproduce this success and in everyone’s interest, it is therefore essential that operators in the logistical chain anticipate properly their border crossing procedure.”.