LONDON – In ports and terminals along Britain’s south-east coast, a new era began on Friday morning without much noise. The ferries and trains that carry goods to France from Dover and Folkestone were running on time, and drivers meandered their trucks through the harbor without congestion.
To all appearance, little has changed on January 1, the country’s first day outside the European Union’s single market and customs union. It was, after all, a holiday and there wasn’t much to do.
But for the first time in more than 25 years, goods traveling between Britain and the European Union will no longer move freely and customs controls will be imposed on goods entering the bloc.
A trade deal, signed in Britain in the early hours of Thursday, less than 24 hours before it goes into effect, means the country and the European Union will trade goods duty-free. Businesses, however, will still face significant changes they were told to prepare for even during lockdowns, closures and other social restrictions the government has introduced to contain a growing coronavirus pandemic.
The changes are sure to bring “hard times,” a senior cabinet minister predicted this week. The government expects the new customs formalities alone to cost UK businesses £ 7bn (around $ 9.6bn) per year. The European Union is Britain’s largest trading partner, with £ 670 billion in imports and exports, and Britain imports far more goods from the bloc than it exports. (It has a trade surplus in services, which are not covered by the trade agreement.)
Britain has at least 150,000 exporters who have never sent their goods beyond the bloc, according to data from the country’s tax agency, and will therefore need to make customs declarations for the first time. Border controls within the European Union were abolished in 1993.
This is a change that will be immediately felt in UK ports, especially the busy port of Dover and the Eurotunnel terminus at Folkestone, which connect the country to France. But on Friday, with most business cut off for New Year’s Day, trains and ferries ran smoothly. Eurotunnel reported that 200 trucks had used his shuttle train at 8 a.m. with all the correct documents.
“It looks pretty calm,” Elizabeth De Jong, policy director of Logistics UK, a trading group, told Sky News on Friday morning.
But she added that companies now face “a new language different from customs arrangements” that needs to be understood. She described the next few weeks as a live trial, as companies need to make sure they have the proper paperwork for themselves and the cargo on board, and traffic needs to be managed in the area.
Far from the Dover-Calais crossing, there were some initial hiccups.
Six lorries bound for Ireland, a member of the European Union, were hijacked to board a ferry at Holyhead, a port in Wales, according to Stena Line, a ferry operator. Drivers did not have the now required clearance for trucks crossing Britain into Ireland – in this case, a digital ‘pre-boarding notification’ from the Irish tax office.
The ferry company, sensing an opportunity amid potential Brexit headaches, has increased the number of direct crossings it offers between Ireland and France, bypassing Britain and the need for customs checks.
In what the UK government has described as the worst-case scenario, 40-70% of trucks heading to the European Union may not be ready for the new border checks. This could result in queues of up to 7,000 trucks bound for the border and delays of up to two days, according to a government report.
Britain recently cleared a huge backlog of trucks from the border. Late on December 20, the French government suddenly closed its border for 48 hours to stop the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus from England. Thousands of trucks and their drivers were stranded for days. Once the border reopened, drivers were then required to show a negative coronavirus test result before being allowed to enter France.
Delays at the normally fast port have also raised concerns over Britain’s supply of fresh produce, much of which is imported from the rest of Europe in winter. A fruit supplier urgently arranged to transport goods into the country, and UK fish and shellfish exporters rushed to send their produce to France before it got spoiled.
The spectacle amplified concerns about trade after December 31, the end of the Brexit transition period. Even though goods are already moving slower as drivers’ coronavirus tests can take around 40 minutes to show results, trucks are unlikely to be waiting in the thousands to enter France on Friday thanks to the quieter holiday period.
In fact, some ferry crossings between Dover and Calais have been canceled Friday afternoon because demand was so low.
“We expect the lasting disruption to worsen in the first two weeks as freight demand increases,” the government report says. It could take about three months.
Frictionless trading has been replaced by a myriad of electronic and paper declarations for exporters, importers and logistics companies. Goods entering the European Union from England, Scotland and Wales now require customs checks, including security certificates, and truck drivers will need a permit to enter the Kent, the county containing Dover and Folkestone, to confirm they have the necessary documents.
Truck drivers coming from the other side face fewer demands at the moment. Britain has relaxed the rules on goods arriving in the country from the European Union for six months.
In Calais, the first vehicle to leave for Great Britain via the Eurotunnel shuttle on Friday morning was from Romania, carrying mail and parcels. The mayor of the French coastal town, Natacha Bouchart, pushed a button allowing the truck to go.
It was a “historic moment”, she says, which “will have consequences of which we do not yet know the extent”.
Antonella Francini contributed reporting from Paris.