When French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish”, he certainly did not have Brexit in mind.
However, this truism applies well to the current situation as no firm plans for the new border have been yet unveiled by HMRC, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the Home Office, the UK Border Force or the so-called Border Planning Group.
Civil servants hide behind wise words such as “risk assessment”, “impact assessment” or “prioritisation”. A senior civil servant at HMRC said in the House of Commons in November: “That’s contingent on what you call a contingency plan”.
Exporters and importers are rightfully inclined to ask: “Very well, but what is the contingency plan? Does it exist?” – as the question was asked recently regarding sectorial impact assessments – “Or is it top secret?”
One must have some sympathy for civil servants who, as the name suggests, serve their political masters. They have not had clear guidance on what borders will look like on 1 April 2019. Politicians are loath to tell the country “you cannot have the cake and eat it” and bravely assume that cross-border trade will not change the day after we leave the EU.
Uncertainty slams the breaks on industry-wide investment
Businesses in the meat supply chain, from farms and hauliers to meat processors, have to plan – be it putting cows to the bull, buying a new packaging machine or agreeing a logistics contract. All are investment decisions whose implications will extend well beyond the date of Brexit.
These decisions are jeopardised by the lack of clarity going forward regarding the movement of goods and people. No wonder, then, that the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee states in its report on future border arrangements: “We are not convinced that government departments (…) are showing enough urgency.”
Some European ports are stepping up preparations. For instance, the port of Dublin is designing new road layouts, building additional inspection sheds and has set aside land for the expected queues of trucks. The Irish government is also investigating alternative routes. Containerised ports on the Continent, such as Zeebrugge, are increasing their handling capacity.
However, the physical task of adapting the UK’s 218 seaports and 59 international airports has not yet started. Worryingly, the Dover corridor, which handles more than four million commercial vehicle movements a year, does not have enough land to stop the flow of trucks and accommodate future controls. People who have crossed by ferry to Saint Malo, in Brittany, can testify to how tight the landing site is between the Rance river and the old town, constraining possible developments.
Border inspection complications
With the number of Customs declarations rising from 55 to 255 million following Brexit, 30 of the 85 extant computer systems will need to be replaced or upgraded. This will not be completed before April 2019.
Finally, ministries and agencies will need to recruit and train thousands of people in a short period of time. Quoting again the Public Accounts Committee: “The government has struggled to effectively forecast demand and its workforce requirements at the border and recruit, train and retain staff.”
New arrangements will need collaboration from both sides of the border. With the French side loath to run a large Customs bill.
The meat sector will face the added complications of veterinary controls at borders, the provision of export health certificates for all single consignments destined to EU countries, and certificates of origin.
Here again, we are still waiting for firm plans from Defra, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and the Rural Payment Agency. Despite a request for computerisation of export health certificates, to replicate the model of our main competitors, for more than 10 years, it does not look as if the new system will be fully in place by March next year. If the crunch comes, imports are likely to be privileged against exports as the UK is not self-sufficient in food.
The agreement of an implementation/transition period of up to two years is absolutely necessary to face the forthcoming border challenges. Still, the UK Trade Policy Observatory warns that this new agreement will be fiendishly difficult to achieve and must be agreed by all member states. The additional 21 months will be a very short time to address all the complex issues and the demands for new infrastructure, particularly as the number of movements of goods and people will rise in years to come.
Planning should therefore be at the heart of the Brexit process. Classic author Montesquieu gives time-honoured advice in saying “governing is planning”.
Jean-Pierre Garnier is a private meat consultant and a well-known figure in the sector. He previously worked as head of exports at UK-levy body the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).