Catastrophe looms at ports after Brexit, shipping industry warns

UK Chamber of Shipping predicts problems across Europe unless frictionless post-Brexit border is in place after Britain leaves the EU

The introduction of physical customs checks following Brexit would be a catastrophe for British ports and shipping and would likely reduce the volume of trade, the head of the sector's UK industry body has warned.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she wants a customs arrangement with the European Union which allows trade to be "as frictionless as possible", but few expect goods will be allowed to move as seamlessly as they have done under current EU regulations. 

The UK Chamber of Shipping, which represents more than 170 freight ship, tanker and cruise liner companies, has called on governments across Europe to urgently grasp the challenge, arguing that a problem for the UK will also be a problem for ports in Holland, Belgium, France and Ireland.

The southeast coast port of Dover, Europe's busiest ferry port, currently handles around 500 non-EU trucks a day and around 8,000 from the EU.

If the EU trucks faced the same customs checks as the non-EU trucks the whole process will be slowed, particularly impacting goods such as fresh food, claims UK Chamber of Shipping CEO Guy PLatten.

"I think the UK government gets it, but I am not so sure other countries do," he said.

"It is a massive problem that we need to get solved. It is in the political gift to have a frictionless or not have a frictionless border. It is a human construct.

"It can take up to an hour for a truck now, multiply that by 8,000 a day and you can see what happens. It is going to be an absolute disaster for the ports and for our sector as well.

"The sailings will still take place, but maybe they won't be able to fit in as many sailings as they could do before. That's going to affect the business of those ferry companies and potentially the viability of routes."

Platten said ports such as Calais, Zeebrugge in Belgium and Dublin, had to be part of the solution.

"We don’t want anyone to win or lose in the Brexit negotiations because we trade on both sides."

Platten said the government needs to reach an early agreement on customs, or ensure a transition period, as checks will require new infrastructure that will take time to put in place and which British ports will struggle to physically accommodate.

However, that infrastructure is unlikely to be in place by the time the UK's departure from the EU is confirmed after it recently emerged that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs are not confident they can deliver an electronic system by March 2019. 

With MP's forecasting that customs checks at Dover will increase from 60m to 300m a year, Dover could be set for an unprecedented amount of disruption, with little sign of an immediate solution. 

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