Government’s preference for simple messages at the expense of logic means we are no more ready for the practical consequences of Brexit today than we were at the last two deadlines, says Shane Brennan, CEO of Cold Chain Federation.
Is anyone feeling like we got Brexit done yet?
That was the groan inducing comment I made at the most recent Government working group meeting I attended.
We had just had an intense discussion about the practicalities of how the border and traffic management will work after 11:01 on New Year’s Eve.
These discussions used to be called ‘no deal planning’ but they have been tactfully renamed as ‘planning for our future border’, even though the issues are basically the same.
But the context has changed a lot.
A new emboldened UK government has set out a robust and decisive position.
In early February, Michael Gove made it clear how the UK will manage its new customs border.
We will not treat goods and services imported from the EU any differently to goods and services imported from any other nation or trading bloc in the world.
We may agree a Free Trade Deal, and if we do, we can have zero tariff trade, but we will not in any circumstances have the type of ‘regulatory alignment’ or ‘level playing field’ provisions that would make it possible to reduce the need for border controls.
We did not vote to take back control in order to accept someone else’s rules.
We will be free and fleet of foot, able to cherry pick the best trade we want, from wherever we choose, anywhere in the world.
We’ll have our cake and we’ll eat it too.
Do they mean it?
Johnson’s administration has the momentum and character of the Brexit campaign he led, intransigent and willing to stick to simple messages at the expense of what appears logical.
They are not willing to show their hand to anyone, especially the UK-based businesses whose trade interests they are representing.
It is not a good bluff unless you sell it well.
The problem is none of this is a game, and for those businesses trying to make plans to move goods across the UK/EU border next year the situation feels even more precarious than it was before.
We are facing massive new burdens.
Smart border infrastructure
Government talks a good game about the technology and smart border infrastructure they will put in place.
This might eventually reduce the slow-down that Brexit will create in trade flow through our ports but there are no indications that these, as yet not invented, systems will be in place in January 2021.
Also, even a smart border relies on millions of data entries for goods moving between the UK and the EU, at the cost and time of the supply chain.
For the cold chain, customs concerns pale into insignificance compared to the problems we face with the food checks that will be required.
The technical name is sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) checks.
The governing principle which underpinned all our plans in 2019, was one where the UK would not impose SPS checks on EU goods in the months after a no deal exit.
The logic was the food we import would be no less safe on the day after we exited the single market than the day before.
It was the EU’s unwillingness to do the same that played a major factor in the assumptions on trade flow disruption and informed the models of traffic jams and supply shortages that dominated no deal plans.
In order to be ready to undertake SPS checks, the French authorities have built a dedicated warehouse facility and space for 300 vehicles in the Pas-De-Calais.
They have re-planned traffic flows through the Port of Calais and undertaken significant amounts of simulation and live testing.
The UK has done none of this, even though we import way more food from the EU than we export to them.
We have 9 months (ish) to sort this out.
Offering to help Government on new border policy
I wrote to Michael Gove in the days after he made his statement on new border policy.
I offered our support to design a new way of conducting SPS checks – not just for EU imports but all food imports.
The approach we propose sees inspections being able to take place at the facilities where the goods arrive, rather than at the Port.
We already do this for some plant-based imports.
Our food storage premises are already registered and approved by the Food Standards Agency.
The new IT system, that traders will have to log all food movements on, will significantly increase transparency and traceability in the food chain.
Money which would have to be spent on building and staffing new border control facilities near Dover and Folkestone could be used to fund new inland inspection officers.
This, in my view, is exactly the type of smart border approach we are told we will have and makes way more sense than building and staffing new infrastructure in or near our already crowded Ports.
Slow and defensive response
It has been a month since the policy change was announced already.
No decisions have been made on how we will manage our border in practice.
So far, the response I have received to my offer of help has been slow and defensive.
For all the bravado, I don’t think we are any more ready for the practical consequences of Brexit today than we were going into the last two deadlines.
We had better hope that they are bluffing…
Shane can be found tweeting at @ColdChainShane