Friday, July 24, 2020

As Border Consultation Announced Brexit Negotiations Catch a Crab

Freight Forwarders Concern at Disassociation with Government
Shipping News Feature

UK – The ever present problem of the disassociation of civil servants and the respective government department which they advise, with the industry lobby groups which try and influence their thinking, must at times be a source of frustration to both parties. The current case of the Brexit negotiations illustrates this point perfectly.

Whilst it might be suitable for the politicians to hold a cynical stance toward lobby groups in some matters, with the exit from the EU, all logistics interests are aligned, knowing how the trade performs and trying to explain the situation to those who sometimes seem to have a different political agenda.

Nothing illustrates this mismatch more perfectly than the recent statement from the Director General of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), Robert Keen who, on hearing the government is to launch a consultation on its 2025 Border Strategy, immediately stated that his group’s extensive involvement with various government departments has highlighted the need for a thorough review of the way that the UK border operates.

The consultation, limited to representative groups, logistics companies and businesses trading overseas not individual travellers, does not actually seek views the Border Operating Model or arrangements for the border at the end of the transition period, but is focused purely on the long-term ambition for the UK’s border. Announcing the consultation Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, said:

”On January 1 2021, we will have full control over our border for the first time in decades, and the freedom to design how it operates in order to deliver the greatest benefit for the UK. We are launching this consultation to draw upon the expertise of the UK border industry as we develop our strategy to build the world’s most effective and efficient border over the next five years.

”By taking advantage of our new independence, we will be able to get a proper grip on exactly who and what comes in and out of the country and give our dedicated Border Force personnel new tools to catch criminals, whilst improving the flow of goods to make the UK border the most effective in the world by 2025.”

Keen’s organisation represents the core of British freight forwarders, the one group which truly understands that the suspension of a free trade agreement will throw the Customs system on both sides of the Channel, back into the Dark Ages. Forget talk of digitalisation, those numbers still need entering physically, and that doesn’t equate to flipping a burger. Competent staff need time to train.

Millions of extra customs entries mean tens of thousands of extra staff and the key to all of this, no-deal or not, will be how the border functions, not in 2025, but from 1 January next year, and fine words and the promises of politicians alone cannot accomplish this by themselves. BIFA has worked closely with various government departments for decades, and Keen points out that, since the Brexit vote, that work has increased in volume and intensity.

Unfortunately he freely admits that on various occasions his Association has been left with an impression that activity and the sharing of data between departments has been lacking. Nevertheless he continues:

“The fact that logistics companies and those who support others to move goods through cross-border supply chains are high up the list of stakeholders from which a response is being sought, is further recognition that the government has woken up to the freight forwarding sector’s crucial role in the management of the UK’s cross-border international trade.

“As a cautionary note, whilst we welcome the opportunity to contribute to the consultation, [and] we will be circulating information to our members, and encouraging them to reply directly, we have been involved in similar initiatives which have yielded few results, such as the Customs Blue Print, which talked of ‘improving the customer experience’ but actually yielded little practical benefit.

“Furthermore, we note that the questions posed in the consultation document are rather restrictive in certain ways. Whilst they focus on processes and data flows, they don’t cover government organisation and functions at the frontier, which is disappointing.

“In addition, in light of the importance of the task at hand, the consultation period is very short, [the consultation closes on 28 August 2020] given that the target date set out by the government for the ‘world’s most effective border’ is not until 2025.

“BIFA members, along with the international traders that they serve, will be hoping that the consultation will help the government create a Border Strategy that does indeed deliver systems that improve the flow of goods and makes the UK border the most effective in the world by 2025.”

So, the news it seems is not good. With the current talks on the transition period stalled and both sides now freely admitting they see no way out of the impasse, we are faced with a situation which whilst interesting, is also extremely concerning. Both sides are now accusing the other of intransigence.

Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator said this week that Britain’s refusal to allow European commercial fishing in UK territorial waters and ‘to commit to conditions of open and fair competition’ were the two main sticking points but, after Britain relaxed its stance on trade talks, it seems that fisheries deal is the real bottleneck, and one which the UK could only budge on if the government was prepared to lose all credibility.

The position then is that, without a paradigm shift from one or other, no-deal, at least in the short to medium term, would seem the more likely position going forward. The questions are, will we see gunboats in the North Sea à la the Cod War? Will thousands be trained and employed as Customs clearance clerks only to be surplus to requirements down the line?

It is easy to understand the frustration of the UK logistics lobby which can continue to offer advice to a government currently facing an intransigent opponent and with still no really clear idea of how it will produce a border that functions efficiently to the satisfaction of all.

Photo: The UK’s future border carries its own unique set of problems.