A “cliff edge” outcome would cause chaos at the “borders,” pluralby Thomas Sampson / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
The latest round of Brexit negotiations has just finished but once again little progress was made. There remains a very real possibility that Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal in March 2019. Some hardcore Brexiteers are actively pushing for such an outcome.
This would have serious consequences, some of which have received a good deal of attention. In this series we’re running through some which haven’t. You might have heard that a “no deal” outcome would create problems at the border, which is correct, but here’s the thing: it’s not just Dover we should be worried about.
Let me explain.
Why will Brexit cause problems at the border?
Let’s start with the basics. The central issue is that currently, goods move freely between the UK and other EU countries. That’s part of being a member state: you get “frictionless trade” with other countries in the bloc. But Brexit will be the end of this. In future, customs checks will be required on UK-EU trade, imposing a new administrative burden on British importers and exporters.
What sort of checks?
At present, we simply do not know. It depends what relationship the UK and the EU have after Brexit. If the UK remains in the EU’s single market or forms a new customs union, there’ll be some additional red tape, but the regime could remain relatively light touch. However, Theresa May ruled out these options in her Lancaster House speech.
Customs procedures will be more onerous if there is a harder Brexit and tariffs are imposed on UK-EU trade, because inspections and paperwork will be needed to ensure businesses pay the correct amounts. And the most worrying scenario would be a no deal Brexit where the negotiations break down completely and the UK crashes out onto World Trade Organisation terms in 2019, without any “transitional period” spent preparing for them.
I remember now—queues of lorries at Dover, right?
That’s the problem which has received the most attention, yes. The Freight Transport Association’s James Hookham estimates that adding just two minutes to average customs processing times would create a 17 mile queue of lorries stretching from Dover almost to Ashford. And a six minute delay could take the queue back to the M25. A chaotic Brexit could cause a log jam.
Won’t the government stop this from happening?
The UK will do what it can to avoid disruption, but that may not be very much. Britain’s customs infrastructure is not designed to handle checks on EU goods. Fixing that could easily take five years and will certainly not be complete by March 2019.
But here’s the thing: even if we solve the Dover problem, there’s another difficulty which people tend to overlook. Customs checks will also be required on the other side of the Channel.
You mean Calais could face the same problem?
Exactly. And Rotterdam. And Dunkirk. And every other EU port that handles trade with the UK. In the same way that Britain will need to impose customs checks, so will other EU countries on trade going to, or coming from, the UK. That means additional bureaucracy for them too, further increasing the cost of UK-EU trade.
Oh god! So why is no one talking about this?
The Brexit debate in Britain is often accused of being too “introspective,” and this is one example of that in action. There is a tendency to view talks in terms of what Britain wants, and the likely effects of different outcomes on the UK. The implications for the EU27 are—fairly or not—often overlooked.
What’s the solution?
Well, one sure-fire way to ensure there are no customs checks is to Remain in the EU. Failing that, a deal with the EU is absolutely essential. Even better would be if Britain stayed in the single market and a customs union during a transitional period of, say, five years, which would enable both the UK and the EU to prepare.