Chaos at customs: Britain's exports plummet by 69% due to Brexit

Bureaucratic procedures with the European Union create endless inconveniences. 

Furthermore, as of April, when import controls begin, the situation could get worse. Northern Ireland feels increasingly abandoned.

Customs controls are emerging as the biggest obstacle of Brexit for businesses, traders, and consumers.  In fact, in January alone, the UK's export traffic to the European Union plummeted 68% compared to last year, according to the British Road Haulage Association, as reported in the Observer. 

This is due to the fact that a free trade agreement between the two blocs post-Brexit, theoretically with zero duties and zero tariffs, is quite different from membership in the European single market.  Before Brexit, goods and merchandise between the UK and the EU flowed smoothly.  Now, despite the absence of duties, you still have to fill out a slew of complicated customs declarations that, especially in the first months of the new system, will cause huge problems.

According to fishermen, Brexit is a massacre

In fact, the problems are there.  Scottish and English fishermen have already dubbed it the "carnage" of Brexit: they are angry with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his executives for the problems and economic damage they are suffering after the final exit of the United Kingdom from the EU on New Year's Eve. 

The result is that, as they complain, very often the fish goes bad in the increasingly long (on average 8-10 hours longer) and complex journey to European customers and buyers.  So much so, that a British boat decided to unload its catch directly in the Netherlands instead of returning home and shipping it two weeks ago.  Some fishing companies in Scotland (but also in the north of England) have already suffered losses of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of euros and risk closing down.

Tons of meat are suffering the same inauspicious fate as fish, for the same reasons. Five containers of British pork were held up in Rotterdam for two weeks because a veterinary certificate was completed incorrectly.  Another five trucks with 23 tons of fresh meat, worth about 600 thousand euros, were blocked in Calais for three days.  A large part of future steaks, fillets, and ribs, was thrown in the garbage.

The unknown English variant of the covid on Brexit

In addition to the main snag of customs declarations, there is a further complication: because of Brexit and also because of the chaos at the borders triggered by the alarm of the so-called "English variant" of the Coronavirus last December, recently many European companies and customers have preventively postponed and frozen their purchases from the UK, just for fear of queues and delays. 

So there are far fewer buyers.  Partly because of this, UK export traffic according to haulers dropped 68% in January.  These are not the official government figures and it must be said that in recent weeks the trend has been upwards.  But certainly it is a worrying figure being reported by workers on the ground.

The point is that the same could come true for UK imports.  The Johnson government has decided not to impose border controls on goods and merchandise entering British soil, unlike the EU with imports from the UK until April, and in some cases even until June 2021. 

How come?  Because the British border authorities have neither the forces (only 10,000 customs agents out of 50,000 needed) nor the capacity (lack of adequate sites) to control what enters the UK.  Therefore, at the moment trucks can safely go across the Channel as if London still belonged to the European single market, with the difference that now you have six months to fill in the relevant customs declarations.

This transitional system will change starting in April, when the UK, like the EU since 1 January, will apply the necessary controls, i.e. those "checks" on animals, meat, plants and fish because they are considered potential channels of disease. 

Therefore, a customs declaration will be required, but above all a certification from a veterinarian or similar.  Then, from June, controls on the rest of the goods will begin, always backed by checks and thick bureaucracy.  This is something that frightens importers of dairy products across the Channel, for example French and Italian importers such as "La Fromagerie" in London. 

Manager Patricia Michelson told the Guardian that if the government doesn't lend a hand and "if things don't improve, we could pay even 10-15% more than today for the import of cheese and other dairy products because of the increase in tariffs for haulers,” frightened by the risks of blocks and stops at the border, in addition to the restrictions on their movements also imposed by Brexit.  "At that point, we'll have to evaluate whether it will still be worth it or not," Michelson explained.

Britain's imports reached £374 billion in 2019

The UK and the EU before Brexit had a very close trade relationship, with the UK importing £374 billion (over €400 billion) worth of goods and merchandise from the EU in 2019, or 52% of total imports.  While the EU imported from the UK goods of £294 billion pounds (about 320 billion euros), or 43% of the total export of the UK.  Now what will happen in the long term with Brexit?

Even Italy is sounding the alarm for this reason.  Yesterday, Coldiretti statistics analysts reported that "the difficulties in trade with Britain endanger 3.4 billion Made in Italy agri-food exports, which is the only sector that grew across the Channel in 2020 (+2.3%) despite the recessionary phase caused by the pandemic."  A comment "in reference to the criticism of the British freight industry against the British government for not having properly assessed the difficulties that the agreement has caused in terms of trade barriers, and that has caused a decrease of 68% compared to January 2020 of exports from the UK to the EU as a result of Brexit, according to the Observer". 

"Britain," adds Coldiretti, "ranks fourth among the trade partners of Italy for food and drink after Germany, France and the United States.  After wine, with Prosecco in the lead, the second most sold Italian food products in Great Britain are tomato derivatives, but the role of pasta, cheese, cold cuts and olive oil is also important.  The flow of Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano is also important.  A commercial flow that - says Coldiretti - risks to be in peril from tensions at the borders that can turn into delays, particularly harmful especially for perishable products such as food".

Alarm from oil and cheese producers in Italy

"The confirmation," concluded Coldiretti, "comes from the cases" of confiscation by Dutch customs officials of ham sandwiches and other food to travelers and truckers coming from the UK based on post-Brexit rules which provide that from 1 January, 2021, it is no longer possible to bring into the EU the so-called POAO (products of animal origin), such as those containing meat or dairy products, on the basis of compliance with the high sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) of the European Union.  While checks are essential to ensure public health and wholesomeness of food, the lack in the Brexit treaty of agreements on the equivalence of phytosanitary standards, not to mention the protection of new productions with EU geographical indications, are aspects that risk translating into heavy penalties for Italian agribusiness, which is a leader in Europe in food quality".

Customs inconveniences also affect ordinary citizens.  Look at the unexpected costs, disservices and taxes that from 1 January, 2021 Europeans and British now suffer when they buy goods from the EU to the UK (or vice versa), or when they send a parcel with destination as one of the two blocs.  The problem is that, now all goods above a certain value are subject to customs declarations and continuous jumps between EU and UK, unlike what happened in the single market, in addition to the possible payment of VAT in the country of arrival.  Hence, unpleasant surprises for consumers on delivery, and a burden on the shoulders of those who buy, not those who sell.

Alarm at customs in Northern Ireland

Finally, all of this has had repercussions on Northern Ireland, where efforts are being made to preserve the fragile peace with the UK achieved in 1998.  Something worrying happened last week because, at the ports of Belfast and Larne, controls on animals and foodstuffs arriving from Great Britain were suspended, as provided for in the Brexit agreement signed by Boris Johnson and the European Union.  The reason?  Threats, by extremist British unionists, who were meeting inspectors, employees and customs staff at the border.  The EU also withdrew its staff "for security reasons".

The news is alarming because the preventive controls on goods, food and animals from Britain to Northern Ireland are a pillar of the Brexit agreement between the UK and EU, after London's exit.  A pillar because, in this way peace is preserved, avoiding the reinstallation of a dangerous border between the two Irelands, and allowing goods to travel freely between the two nations, but also to preserve the integrity of the European single market, to which the UK no longer belongs.

When London was in the European single market, until last 31 December, all these problems in fact were not there: goods, animals and food traveled freely between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, because they all belonged to the Single Market and the European Customs Union.  Brexit shattered this balance, and so Johnson committed in the agreement with the Europeans to pre- emptively check goods and commodities traveling from Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales) to Northern Ireland, for the reasons mentioned above.

Northern Ireland left to its own devices by Johnson

The problem is that this new regime does not seem to be accepted by the extremist unionists in Northern Ireland, who see this as proof of the inexorable split in the United Kingdom, of a Northern Ireland "more and more left to itself" (the agreement signed by Johnson objectively goes in this direction) and therefore more and more destined to reunite with the Catholic Republic of Ireland, a scenario despised by fundamentalist Protestants. Hence, the threats from extremists.

Controversy has been raised towards the Johnson government, because in the past it has refused to control the goods in question already in Great Britain, and not in Northern Ireland, thus offering, according to its critics, an argument to extremists.  In addition, Johnson has in the past threatened to disregard the European agreement on preventive customs controls from G.B. to Belfast, with the aim of wringing a more favorable trade agreement from the EU.  An aggressive rhetoric towards Europe that has hardly helped to diffuse the situation.

The news of the stop to the controls in Belfast and Larne came just after days of tension between the United Kingdom and the European Union that directly involved Northern Ireland.  When, for example, last week the EU called for a stop to the export of vaccines out of the EU, it also considered triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement, i.e. a unilateral decision to reimpose controls on certain goods at the border, in this case vaccine doses.

A move that not only radicalized feelings in Northern Ireland and its unionist and republican parties (Sinn Féin), but also triggered outrage and indignation from all British political parties.  Even the "Taoiseach", i.e. the Irish Prime Minister Michéal Martin, said he was disconcerted, because the EU (before it made a dizzying backtrack) had not even warned him.  The fear now, is that due to the borders imposed by Brexit, the tension in Northern Ireland may also rise more and more.

Main ph: Kelvin Atkins /