With less than three months to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, attention is focused on how to keep vital trade routes across the English Channel flowing as smoothly as possible.
“I am expecting the channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances,” the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the this week.
But in the event of a no-deal Brexit (the UK leaving the EU without any formal Withdrawal Agreement and no transition period), the government‘s own advice contradicts him.
A statement issued by the Cabinet Office last month said that cross-government planning assumptions have been revised to show that, in a worst-case scenario, “there will be very significantly reduced access across the short strait [between Dover and Calais] for up to six months”.
The statement noted that, in a no-deal scenario, the EU would impose full third-country controls on people and goods entering the EU from the UK. The impact, the Cabinet Office said, would affect both imports and exports at Dover and Folkestone (home of the Channel Tunnel) because of the “frequent and closed loop nature” of the crossings.
So why has Dover become so integral to the UK‘s economic system?
It is by far the biggest destination in the country for roll-on roll-off ferries (known as Ro-Ro, which means cargo is driven on and off rather than lifted by cranes). Dover handled 2.9 million units of Ro-Ro freight last year, most of which were lorries with drivers.
It is also the main access route for trade with the rest of the EU inside the single market. Lorries currently simply drive on and off ferries and are on the motorway within a matter of minutes.
But any lorries arriving from a non-EU country, such as Switzerland, are subject to longer delays.
“If customs don‘t want to check anything, that would [still] delay the vehicle by about an hour or an hour and a half [while the driver waits for a decision],” Andrew Baxter, the managing director of the freight logistics company Europa Worldwide, told a House of Commons Committee last year.
“If customs wanted to do a documentary check, that could delay it by up to three hours, and if there was an inspection of the goods, that could delay it by up to five hours,” he added.
Even though such checks are in the low single digits in percentage terms, it doesn‘t take much for long queues to develop in the tight confines of the port of Dover.
That‘s why the government says that, in the event of no-deal, it would minimise checks at Dover to the greatest extent possible and could, in theory, simply wave trucks through. But, as the Cabinet Office acknowledges, it cannot control what the EU will do on the other side of the Channel.
Supporters of Brexit, though, have said consistently that the threat of chaos at Dover has been exaggerated.
The Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has often quoted a statistic that it takes only six seconds to complete customs checks for goods arriving at the port of Southampton from outside the EU. There is, he has suggested, no reason why ports such as Dover cannot implement similar systems.
DP World Southampton, which operates the container terminal with the Port of Southampton, confirmed that customs declarations are processed in approximately six seconds, but it emphasised that, at that point, the cargo is not customs-cleared.
It normally takes about an hour for customs clearance to be completed after a vessel arrives at port, but crucially that depends on customs declarations and other documents being submitted “typically 2 to 3 days before” the ship reaches Southampton.
It is a system that works well at ports like Southampton or Felixstowe for goods arriving from the other side of the world. If a ship is at sea for several weeks, it gives companies plenty of time to get all their paperwork in order.
The challenge with Ro-Ro freight, which becomes more acute as crossings get shorter, is that you have less time to do that. On the 90-minute journey from Calais to Dover, with the sheer volume of traffic which uses that route, it is something of a non-starter.
One potential solution on the other side of the Channel, according to Andrew Baxter, would be to force companies not to use Calais as a customs point for checking industrial goods, but to use inland clearance points instead, perhaps in the EU country of final destination.
“No one wants delays, on either side,” he said, “and we have to be practical.”
But EU law would not allow health and safety inspections for food and animal products arriving from a third country (like the post-Brexit UK) to take place very far inland.
They have to be carried out at designated Border Inspection Posts (BIPs), at the first point of entry into the single market, on 100% of products.
That has led the National Farmers Union to warn that parts of the British food industry could face ‘catastrophic consequences‘ as a result.
The Environment Secretary Michael Gove appears to agree.
“At the moment there are no Border Inspection Posts at Calais,” Mr Gove told the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday. “While we do hope the French take steps to build capacity there, that capacity is unlikely by the end of March to be generous.