Andrew Baxter, MD of Europa Worldwide Group has stated he thinks speculation of chaos at the UK’s ports immediately after Brexit is “basically wrong”.  By contrast, Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), predicted that there is an 80% chance of “chaos in Kent” when the UK fully exits the EU.  So who is right?

The case for optimism

The case for optimism appears to be based on the belief that, when the chips go down, (or preferably before), common sense will prevail.  Chaos at the UK’s ports would benefit no one and in fact,  it would actively hurt a lot of people, many of whom are in the EU.  It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to work out a solution.

At this stage, it seems most likely that the “solution” will actually be a “workaround” while a solution is found, but the key point is that it will prevent chaos at the ports.

The case for pessimism

The case for pessimism appears to be founded on the belief that time and tide wait for no one.  Effectively, there are three months until the UK leaves the EU.  How much time that leaves in practice depends on whether or not you assume that the relevant people will literally work every day if necessary.  Even if they do, and do not get pulled away to deal with other issues, there are only so many hours in a day a person can physically work.

What’s more, one of the major stumbling blocks to the UK’s departure is the conspicuous absence of customs agents to process cargo at major ports.  Resolving this issue by New Year would require massive levels of action at the very highest of speeds.

The issue of customs agents

At present, the UK has negligible customs infrastructure and very few customs agents.  This is because, at present, most of the customs work for the UK is performed by countries on the outer edges of the EU.  As a result, the UK is having to reboot its customs system almost from scratch.

What’s more, after a quarter of a century in the single market, it lacks a reservoir of domestic expertise on which to draw.  There probably are pre-EU customs officials still working (or at the younger end of retirement age).  Their knowledge, however, will be massively outdated and they will never have been exposed to the technology used by modern customs officials.

Potential solutions

The good news is that there are some potential solutions to the “customs problem”, although none of them is ideal.

Allow goods to come through without full customs checks

Instead of undertaking full customs checks on every import, the UK would operate a system of self-declaration plus random checks.  This is basically what HMRC does for tax declarations and it appears to work fairly well for them.  That said, the whole point of successful tax evasion is that you wouldn’t know about it, so perhaps it isn’t as successful as HMRC thinks.

Customs checks are not quite the same as regular tax checks and this system has clear scope for both genuine error and deliberate abuse.  That said, this approach may have to be used to keep the UK’s ports moving if no other solution can be found.

Ask the EU to undertake customs checks on behalf of the UK

This would be supremely ironic and potentially expensive.  On the other hand, it could also be very effective.

Try to recruit customs agents from other countries

Countries on the EU’s borders are already set up with robust customs infrastructure.  Countries on the northern end of mainland Europe have been upscaling their infrastructure in preparation for Brexit, as has the Republic of Ireland.  Some of these agents might be open to attractive offers.

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