Amid the chaos predicted if the U.K. departs the European Union (EU) on October 31 without a trade or customs deal, Europe’s truckers and their cargoes will be on Brexit’s frontline, facing a range of heightened dangers. There is growing evidence that not enough is being done to mitigate the risks.
A new report from Britain’s National Audit Office (NAO) published on October 16 highlighted that criminals could view any Brexit supply chain chaos as an opportunity, leaving trucks and shipments – already targets for people and drug smugglers operating on the English Channel – further exposed.
“The main thing is that drivers need to make sure they keep themselves safe,” Duncan Buchanan, policy director at Road Haulage Association, a U.K.-based trucking representative body, told FreightWaves.
“We’re in a situation now that 40, 50, 100 miles away from the main exit points of the EU there are migrants trying to get into vehicles. It’s a serious problem. It hasn’t gone away; in fact there has been an increase because the smugglers have been saying Britain is going to be ‘closed’ after October 31.
“So, our advice – the number one priority – is that drivers keep themselves safe.”
The NAO report – The UK border: preparedness for EU exit October 2019 – found that while the most significant Brexit challenge is the lack of “business readiness,” additional challenges include “monitoring and responding to any disruption that may ensue” and “mitigating risks of the border becoming vulnerable to fraud, smuggling or other criminal activity, and activating civil contingency plans” where necessary.
The NAO publication comes after the U.K. government admitted a no-deal Brexit from the EU could see truck flows on English Channel tunnel and ferry routes cut to just 50% of current levels for three months, while truck drivers could also face delays of up to 2.5 days before crossing into France.
Such is the confusion and complexity of Brexit, many shippers have already started to reduce U.K. exposure by transferring distribution and storage capacity to new locations in continental Europe, a trend reshaping the European logistics landscape.
Buchanan said that, post-Brexit, truckers should only attempt to cross the border with complete paperwork from the import or exporter. “If you cannot get across the border, do not carry the goods,” he added.
“That’s the safest way of [avoiding] queues which make the driver, the cargo and the lorry vulnerable.”
Still, there are also concerns about the preparedness of border security. Since April, funding has been allocated for “up to 1,000” additional U.K. Border Force staff, including around 250 personnel to support the increase in transit checks, according to the NAO report.
However, it is unclear how many have been trained and are in place. Border Force, the law enforcement arm responsible for immigration and customs, refused to comment when asked by FreightWaves how it planned to guard against criminals taking advantage of supply chain chaos.
Preparations in continental Europe are also struggling to keep up with the political negotiations. A Dutch Customs officer told FreightWaves last week that a no-deal Brexit would overnight turn the U.K. from an EU country into a “normal third country,” meaning that all goods and people movements would be subject to customs checks and formalities.
Asked if any special preparations had been made for an upturn in, for example, drug smuggling, he said, “There are no special measures at this moment,” adding that Dutch Customs is unable to coordinate policies with its British counterparts until after a Brexit deal has been struck.
He said 750 extra officers were now in place out of 1,000 that will be recruited to deal with the increased workload associated with Brexit.
The scale of the challenge facing customs and police authorities guarding the new border between the U.K. and EU was laid bare by the NAO report, which found that last year 228.5 million tons crossed the border.
To prevent smuggling of contraband, the Dutch Customs officer said detailed trade profiles would be constructed over time, gradually helping the targeting of high-risk shippers and shipments based on data and experience.
At the moment, he added, because the U.K. is part of the EU, trade between the two parties lacks visibility, so “we have no idea what’s coming from the U.K. because we don’t check.”
He added, “So for customs, its experience, we have to wait. Maybe in two years I can tell you clearly what the risks are. But at this moment it’s very hard.”
He said the last time smuggling prevention policies were in place for the U.K. – “back in the 90s” – items most likely to be smuggled were “leather coats” and “antiques.”
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) expects it will need to process 270 million declarations each year if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, compared with current volumes of 55 million.
HMRC also expects 150,000-250,000 traders will need to make a declaration for the first time in the event of no deal in just over two weeks, of which only approximately 25,000 had registered for Transitional Simplified Procedures as of October 8
Buchanan said the scale of the paperwork changes Brexit entails means it is “absolutely impossible for everyone to be fully compliant given the volume of trade.”
He anticipates traders “making lots of mistakes” due to the lack of a transitional period.
“We are getting new information from governments all of the time – we are trying to seek clarity from authorities in Europe and we’re not getting it,” he added.
Pauline Bastidon, Head of European and Global Policy at the U.K.-based Freight Transport Association (FTA), said the NAO report highlights the scale of the challenge for industry.
“It echoes FTA’s messages to government about structural issues that are slowing down preparedness, such as the shortage of customs brokers able to support industry in complying with new customs formalities or the lack of clarity on operational details – not least in relation to how the Irish border would be managed by the Irish Government in a no-deal situation,” she added.
“The situation is particularly challenging for U.K. exports to the continent and Ireland – especially for agri-food products, where a shortage of veterinarians able to sign export certificates is to be feared.”
Bastidon also said, “In spite of the industry’s best efforts, delays and disruptions cannot be and should not be excluded, at a time when logistics and supply chain managers are less able to mitigate disruptions due to high demand for transport and warehousing capacity ahead of the Christmas period.”
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