"It's a mess!" Three weeks after the restoration of customs formalities under Brexit, hauliers and SMEs in France are lamenting delays and extra costs.
Fingers are being pointed at the other side of the English Channel, with complaints of a "pile-up of red tape", a British "lack of preparation", and a general lack of focus. "The first days were difficult, there were a great deal of delays. Some of our drivers had to wait a week on the British side to make export declarations," regretted Benoît Lefebvre,
managing director of Sonotri, a firm specialising in the transport of chemical products.
"We were treated to everything: customers who'd declared nothing, those who'd made admin mistakes... queues to obtain documents in England," said the Normandy-based haulier, 20% of whose turnover is linked to the United Kingdom. Part a group of logistics operators, he claims that "in the first week, 60% of shipments arriving in Normandy ports could not be accepted into France without additional checks".
One single mistake between two forms blocks everything!
The main problem has been the saturation of British customs services, recently denounced by the prefect of the Nord department in a letter to the government. Traffic fluidity relies on a technological system where drivers show bar codes, linked to declarations filled out in advance by companies or their customs agents.
But on the English side, "there are numerous IT bugs", says Paul-François Schira, deputy prefect responsible for Brexit in the northern Hauts-de-France region. He also highlights "poor calculations by sanitary control services" in the UK.
"One single mistake between two forms blocks everything!" stresses Lefebvre. And with an EU-UK agreement pulled off only days before Brexit took effect, he says "British and European systems have not been standardised, inter-connected".
Between customs and security declarations, specific procedures for regulated goods, access permits for Kent and compulsory COVID-19 tests, "imagine the number of forms!" he exclaims.
The burden falls on a "myriad of companies" with "extremely variable" levels of preparation, some SMEs having "never exported outside the EU", says Sébastien Rivera, secretary of the National Federation of Road Hauliers in the Pas-de-Calais department. Xavier Dewynter, manager of two customs agents firms in Dunkirk and used to exporting worldwide, has seen demand "increase dramatically" since Brexit. He has "some 20 new clients, for scheduled journeys to deal with urgently".
"We are in the process of recruiting three new agents -- out of a dozen in total -- and reorganising, because Eurotunnel and the ferries operate round the clock, this wasn't what we were used to," he explained to AFP. "But I am really angry with the Brexit negotiators. How can you prepare, with no information until the last minute?"
Many companies "understood nothing", he reckons, citing those who "wanted to cancel contracts after the deal, believing there would be nothing to do," or those calling up in panic "to be released" from a terminal.
Paul-François Schira explains that the prefecture "probed the level of preparation" among lorries, calculating that of those exporting to England, "90 to 95%" were ready to cross the border. In the other direction, the level is put at "80 to 85%".
Operators are in the process of settling in," he says, hoping that "the English rapidly resolve their IT problems", while "only 50% of the usual traffic flow is moving today".
"We are clearly moving from a standard transport system to a specialist trade," Lefebvre sums up.
For Eli Gifford, manager of "Tea together", which makes jams and preserves for the hospitality trade, the formalities "cost €200 per journey". "For a bill of €10,000 it's small enough, but it's more complicated for small orders", such as "samples until now sent for free".
"We're going to encourage our customers to order in bulk," says the businessman, for whom England represents a third of his activity. But "with COVID-19, they're suffering and don't want to stock up".
And if Brexit "seems of secondary importance today... everyone could have done well without it," he concludes.