Boris Johnson is preparing to impose full customs and border checks on all European goods entering the UK after Brexit, in a ramping up of pressure on the coming EU-UK trade talks, the Telegraph has learned.
In a radical departure from pre-election ‘no deal’ planning that prioritised the smooth flow of goods into the UK from Europe, Whitehall departments have been told to prepare for imposing the full panoply of checks on EU imports to the UK.
The toughened approach, which is designed to give UK negotiators greater leverage against Brussels, came as Mr Johnson promised that Brexit would open an exciting new chapter “in our great national drama”.
“I know that we can turn this opportunity into a stunning success and whatever the bumps in the road ahead, I know that we will succeed,” he said. “Now is the time to use those tools to unleash the full potential of this brilliant country and to make better the lives of everyone in every corner of our United Kingdom.”
In London, the cabinet discussed the Government’s future trade agenda on Friday, including the desire for a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement with the EU that will necessitate checks for customs, regulations as well as animal and plant product safety.
Preparations for the new EU-UK trading relationship are now poised to shift into a radically higher gear, The Telegraph has learned, in a move that will shock many businesses, including hauliers, logistics companies and supermarket chains.
“We are planning full checks on all EU imports - export declarations, security declarations, animal health checks and all supermarket goods to pass through Border Inspections Posts,” said a senior Whitehall source with knowledge of the plans. “This will double the practical challenge at the border in January 2021.”
UK trade groups responded with shock to the change of tack, warning that the plans risked creating huge logistical bottlenecks, supermarket shortages and prices rises.
Industry chiefs are due to be summoned to a meeting with the cabinet office minster Michael Gove and senior officials on February 10 to be told of the plans under the title “Preparing our border for the future partnership”.
UK negotiators hope the move will increase their leverage in the negotiation, raising the cost of a ‘WTO-exit’ for the EU.
A senior EU source rejected the idea. “We saw similar threats from Theresa May, but frankly we never believed them. And if the UK is actually ready for border checks - which are indeed coming - then so much the better for both sides.”
Senior Whitehall sources revealed that Downing Street had already issued instructions for all Whitehall departments to gear up for full checks in a programme to be overseen by a committee of top officials and the HMRC’s Border Delivery Group.
The decision marks a profound departure from the previous ‘no deal’ planning stance, which promised only light checks on EU imports to ensure that goods kept flowing, with some 87 per cent of goods exempted from any tariffs.
“We are not doing the no deal unilateral flow prioritisation anymore, and that is a blanket move, across the board,” the source added. “It will have big practical impacts.”
One trade chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve his relations, said the UK “might as well put the barbed wire up” if they were determined to press ahead with the plans, given the lack of physical space at UK ports for inspection facilities.
A second noted Mr Gove had said that the UK wanted a trade relationship based on the EU-Canada deal, but that required one in ten of all animal products to have physical checks. “The borders won’t work if you have to run these types of processes,” the source said.
Pauline Bastidon, the head of Global and European Policy at the Freight Transport Association said that if the government was taking this approach, it would need to prioritise trade facilitation measures in the coming negotiations, particularly on agri-foods.
“If this is really going to be the approach, and maintaining the flow of goods into the UK is no longer the priority, it would have serious consequences for supply chains, and would be an unwelcome departure from the previous pragmatic approach,” she added.
Those fears were echoed by Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said whose members, including supermarkets, risking being hardest hit by the coming friction, particularly in winter when 80 per cent of fresh produce comes from the EU.
“The BRC has long been clear that checks at Dover and Folkestone would have a significant impact on produce in our stores. Almost all fresh produce comes through that route and there is no suitable alternative,” he said.
“The creation of checks for goods crossing the Dover Straits would add delays, meaning less availability, shorter shelf life for fresh produce, and potentially higher costs for consumers.”