Britain's Post-Brexit Border Plan Has a Truck-Sized Hole

The U.K. government still hasn't set out how trucks moving between Britain and the European Union will be handled after Brexit--a major gap in its planning that is causing concern among freight firms. The government outlined its proposals for the border with the EU in an 89-page consultation document circulated to the industry. The section setting out how lorries will navigate the new customs processes consists of a blank page.

Britain's decision to leave the EU's customs union means the millions of trucks that cross the Strait of Dover each year will face new checks and paperwork from next year--even if the U.K. and its largest trading partner sign a trade agreement by then. Businesses are concerned about the government's lack of preparation and the growing risk supply chains will be disrupted. "There is much work still to do in order to define the physical processes and associated data flow for lorries moving between the U.K. and France," said Tim Reardon, head of EU Exit at the Port of Dover, where up to 10,000 trucks arrive each day. "The next few weeks and months will be busy."

The government said it is still consulting with industry about its plan for the border and will publish it in full next month. "We are continuing to develop our systems in preparation for the end of the transition period and the introduction of new border controls," the Cabinet Office said in a statement. "We are regularly engaging with industry as plans develop." Dover Gridlock? Sections in the draft document set out two planned processes for goods arriving in the U.K.: temporary storage, which is appropriate for unaccompanied containerized freight that can be kept in a warehouse, and a pre-lodgement model, where trucks carrying goods file their paperwork electronically in advance.

The pre-lodgement section lacks any details. It will be essential to have a system to file paperwork in advance in place for goods crossing the English Channel, according to Lars Karlsson, chief executive officer at KGH Global Consulting, which advises companies on customs processes. That's because of the short time the crossing takes and the fact the ports don't have space to hold large numbers of vehicles, he said.

"There is no way of coping with a situation where there are miles-long queues of trucks or parking places," Karlsson said. "The system needs to be detailed as soon as possible." With businesses grappling with the coronavirus, the government has already given businesses in Britain a six-month grace period to adapt to new checks on imports from the EU--but that won't apply to Northern Ireland, which is subject to different rules under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Having only five months to prepare won't be enough time for traders to test any new system, said Peter MacSwiney, chairman of ASM (UK) Ltd., which provides customs software to freight forwarders.

'Shambles' "The whole thing is just a shambles," MacSwiney said, who is also co-chair of a government-sponsored working group looking at the EU transition. "They've locked themselves away in silos and designed systems they think will work without really proper consultation." Britain and the EU will hold a fresh round of talks next week, and have further negotiating sessions planned for later in July and August.

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said October will be the "moment of truth" if member states are to have enough time to ratify the agreement by the year-end.

Meanwhile, the U.K. is planning a "shock and awe" ad campaign in the autumn to urge businesses to prepare.

"We need clarity, and we need clarity fast," said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association. "There are so many gaps, so many unknowns."

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