LONDON – A new era began without much fuss at the ports and terminals on the south east coast of the UK on Friday morning. Ferries and trains transporting goods from Dover and Folkestone to France ran on time, and the drivers snaked their trucks unloaded into the port.
Apparently little has changed on January 1st, the country’s first day outside the internal market and customs union of the European Union. It was a public holiday, after all, and there wasn’t much to do.
For the first time in over 25 years, goods moving between the UK and the European Union can no longer move freely and goods entering the block will be subject to customs controls.
A trade agreement signed in the UK in the early hours of Thursday, less than 24 hours before entry into force, means the country and the European Union will trade goods without tariffs. However, businesses will continue to face significant changes that they had to prepare for, including during government lockdowns, closings and other social restrictions to contain a growing coronavirus pandemic.
The changes are sure to bring “bumpy moments,” a senior cabinet minister predicted this week. The government estimates that new customs papers alone will cost British companies £ 7 billion (about $ 9.6 billion) a year. The European Union is the UK’s largest trading partner, with imports and exports totaling £ 670 billion, and the UK imports far more goods from the bloc than it exports. (It has a trade surplus in services that are not covered by the trade agreement.)
The UK has at least 150,000 exporters who, according to the country’s tax authority, have never shipped their goods beyond the block and are therefore required to file customs declarations for the first time. Border controls within the European Union were abolished in 1993.
This is a change that will be felt immediately in UK ports, particularly the busy port of Dover and the Eurotunnel endpoint in Folkestone, which connect the country to France. But on Friday, when most of the business shut down on New Years Day, it was reported that trains and ferries were running smoothly. Eurotunnel reported that 200 trucks had used their shuttle train by 8 a.m. with all correct documents.
“It seems pretty quiet,” Elizabeth De Jong, the political director of Logistics UK, a trade group, told Sky News on Friday morning.
However, she added that companies are now facing “a new, different language of customs regulations” that need to be understood. She described the next few weeks as a live test as companies need to ensure that they have the correct documentation for themselves and the goods on board and that traffic needs to be directed to the region.
There were some early hiccups off the Dover-Calais intersection.
Six trucks bound for Ireland, a member of the European Union, have been banned from boarding a ferry at Holyhead, a port in Wales, according to Stena Line, a ferry company. Drivers now did not have the required authorization for trucks going from the UK to Ireland – in this case a digital “pre-boarding notification” from the Irish tax office.
The ferry company, seeing an opportunity in relation to the potential headache of Brexit, has increased the number of direct sails it offers between Ireland and France, bypassing the UK and the need for customs controls.
In what the UK government calls the worst-case scenario, 40 to 70 percent of trucks going into the European Union may not be ready for the new border controls. That could result in lines of up to 7,000 trucks driving to the border and delays of up to two days, according to a government report.
Britain has only recently removed a huge backlog of trucks from the border. On late 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. After the border reopened, drivers were required to present a negative coronavirus test result before being allowed to enter France.
The delays in the normally fast-paced port have also raised concerns about the UK’s supply of fresh food, much of which is imported from the rest of Europe in winter. A fruit supplier was urging goods to be flown into the country, and British exporters of fish and shellfish tried to send their goods to France before they were spoiled.
The spectacle heightened concerns about trading after December 31, the end of the Brexit transition period. Although goods are already moving more slowly as coronavirus tests on drivers can take around 40 minutes to produce results, the quieter holiday season makes it unlikely that thousands of trucks will be waiting to enter France on Friday.
In fact, some ferry crossings between Dover and Calais were canceled on Friday afternoon because demand was so low.
“We would expect the ongoing disruption to worsen in the first two weeks as freight demand increases,” the government report said. This could take about three months.
The smooth trade has been replaced by a multitude of electronic and paper declarations for exporters, importers and logistics companies. Goods entering the European Union from England, Scotland and Wales now require customs controls, including security certificates. Truck drivers require entry permits into Kent, the county including Dover and Folkestone to confirm that they have the necessary documents.
Truck drivers who drive in the other direction initially have to make fewer demands. Britain has relaxed the rules for goods coming into the country from the European Union for six months.
In Calais, the first vehicle to take the Eurotunnel shuttle to Great Britain on Friday morning was from Romania and carried mail and parcels. The mayor of the French coastal city, Natacha Bouchart, pressed a button so the truck could leave.
It was a “historic moment,” she said, “which will have consequences the scope of which we do not yet know.”
Antonella Francini contributed to reporting from Paris.