Post-Brexit red tape is causing some UK exports to the EU to grind to a halt, industry bodies have warned, as the new rules that came into force at New Year begin to bite.
One fish exporter said on Monday that prices were “collapsing” in the Scottish port of Peterhead, amid reports that some have fallen by as much as 80% due to “export blockages”.
It follows an earlier warning that “dozens of fish lorries have failed to leave Scotland on time after Brexit regulations came into force”.
There are fears that UK exports to the continent could experience severe delays as French authorities step up enforcement of new trade rules.
Meanwhile, there have also been reports of major food supply problems in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic due to new trading rules.
The EU-UK post-Brexit trade deal struck on Christmas Eve secured mutual access to markets free of tariffs and quotas. But the UK’s departure from the EU’s trading structures has brought a plethora of other obstacles, involving new IT systems, customs declarations and regulatory checks.
‘Door to the EU now shut’
Scottish fish exports — particularly reliant on smooth deliveries to the continent — seem to be among the worst hit by the new paperwork demands. IT problems in France have also reportedly caused delays.
James Withers, CEO of Scotland Food & Drink, said on Sunday that there had been many messages from “food exporters who are finding the door to the EU is now shut”. “A multi-billion pound trade system is being tested for the 1st time, in real-time. And it’s going wrong,” he tweeted.
Scotland’s main food and drink bodies appealed to the UK government for help on Friday as exports hit serious problems. Scotland Food & Drink and Seafood Scotland joined the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) in calling for a “lighter touch” approach to help exports reach European markets.
“Confusion over paperwork, the extra documentation needed and IT problems have all contributed to delays and hold-ups,” they said.
The trade bodies added that the post-Brexit trade deal struck “just a week before the new regulations came into effect, gave businesses no time to prepare for the huge changes necessary to get produce to the continent”.
‘Perfect storm’ warning
Last week another industry body, Seafood from Scotland, warned of a “perfect storm” for exporters amid post-transition new Brexit rules, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pre-Christmas closure of the French border. These, it said, had unleashed layer upon layer of administrative problems, resulting in queues, border refusals and utter confusion”.
The trade bodies said they had appealed to the British government for a “six-month bedding-in period” to allow adjustment to the new rules, but instead January 1 had brought a “cliff-edge”. “We warned this would lead to problems but our appeals for the grace period were ignored,” said Scotland Food & Drink’s James Withers.
Fishing communities elsewhere in the UK have also complained of “major complications”. An open letter to Parliament from Samways of Lyme Bay listed several red-tape issues, including the need to have a vet on-site to sign off goods.
There have been appeals from UK transporters for a pragmatic approach from the French authorities, amid fears that English Channel crossings could suffer longer delays as checks become more stringent.
Shane Brennan, Chief Executive of the Cold Chain Federation, told BBC Radio Kent on Monday he was “deeply uneasy about how things are going to build throughout the course of this week”. “We’re in the hands of the French authorities here… our plea is to them to find ways to help us make this work,” he added.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has warned of a repeat of pre-Christmas jams in southern England, as the volume of traffic — in early January only 25% of normal levels — increases.
“The chaos has begun. Organising even the simplest load to Europe has become an almost impossible task due to the mountain of Tory red tape that was brought in on the 1st of January,” Dover-based freight company John Shirley Ltd tweeted on Friday.
Government warns of ‘significant disruption’
British Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Friday he expected there to be “significant additional disruption” at the country’s borders in the coming weeks because of custom changes forced by Brexit.
“So far disruption at the border hasn’t been too profound but it is the case that in the weeks ahead we expect that there will be significant additional disruption, particularly on the Dover-Calais route,” he said.
Gove also said it was the government’s responsibility to make sure that business is as ready as possible, AP reported.
“Hauliers and traders have already done a lot but we have to redouble our efforts to communicate the precise paperwork that is required in order to make sure that trade can flow freely,” the minister added.
The government’s advice on EU trading requirements, running to 159 double pages was updated on New Year’s Eve, just hours before the new rules came into force.
“There will be no non-tariff barriers to trade,” Boris Johnson said on Christmas Eve, the day the new EU-UK post-Brexit agreement was announced.
The events of early January have cast further doubt not just on that claim but also on the prime minister’s assertion that the new trade deal “will if anything allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends”.
New rules hit Irish Sea supplies
Dozens of major retailers are reportedly reviewing supplies to the Republic of Ireland, due to the imposition of new tariffs, or import taxes. The EU-UK trade deal eliminates them, but goods exported from the EU to the UK are subject to tariffs if they are then re-exported by being sent on to Ireland.
Supply chain problems are said to have been at least partly behind a decision last week by the ferry company Stena Line to cut a dozen Irish Sea crossings.
Northern Ireland has been particularly badly hit by a drop in supplies, with gaps appearing on supermarket shelves. Although part of the UK, the territory remains subject to EU trading rules under the divorce deal in order to keep an open land border with the Republic. The result is increased red tape and border checks on goods sent from Britain.
The Road Haulage Association has warned that the Northern Irish supply chain is “close to collapse”, with lorries stuck in Britain or returning empty. It has called for urgent financial help from the government and a grace period for the new rules.
“Even some of the bigger supermarkets haven’t been prepared for the additional paperwork… In addition to that a lot of companies are aware of the additional requirements and have made a business decision to cease supplying Northern Ireland in the short-term until all the teething issues are sorted out,” said the RHA’s policy manager for Northern Ireland, John Martin.
Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, warned at New Year that the despite the benefits of the new “zero tariff, zero quota” EU-UK trade deal, it did not remove the need for new customs formalities in the Irish Sea.
“The TCA (Trade and Cooperation Agreement) contains no measures to reduce paperwork, checks and controls on the Irish Sea border, although managing the border could become easier with further customs cooperation,” he said.
“But even the chance of future co-operation is scant comfort to businesses who are sending or bringing goods into Northern Ireland.”