For many Irish farmers and food producers, Britain is a time-saving flyover from their rainswept island on the periphery of Europe to millions of hungry consumers on the Continent. The cross-U.K. route allows Irish traders to reach EU markets in a little over 10 hours door-to-door, a swift timeframe vital for transporting perishable goods.
Dublin’s strategic problem is that London’s hard-line approach to leaving the EU and its customs union is now exploding Britain’s status as a reliable commercial land bridge. Irish food merchants and hauliers are being confronted with the prospect of journey times tripling and painful logjams for customs clearance in ill-equipped ports that will prove lethal to their profit margins.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the British transit route: Some 80 percent of the Irish road freight that reaches mainland Europe passes through the U.K.
“Ireland is reliant on that accessibility to the U.K. more than any other country in Europe,” said Aidan Flynn, a manager at Freight Transport Association Ireland.
Britain is itself a crucial export market for Ireland, buying a total of €15 billion worth of goods last year as well as buying half of the country’s exported beef and 42 percent of its food and drink. But continental markets are far more valuable to Irish exporters, with €45 billion-worth heading to the EU26, according to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office.
Customs and tariffs between the EU and Britain are among the thorniest problems facing Brexit negotiators, with both sides eager to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. If policymakers fail to find an imaginative way to have frictionless trade — something the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier already warned is impossible — Ireland risks turning into a costly hinterland like Iceland, reliant on infrequent, lengthy ferry connections that bypass the U.K.
There are up to 10 ferry crossings a day from Dublin to Holyhead in north Wales that take just two or three hours, the busiest route out of several that link Ireland and Britain. Even if tariffs are avoided in the Brexit rupture, customs checks could see Irish truckers slapped with four separate customs controls while they run through Britain — at departure and arrival, then again on both sides of the Channel — adding hours to transit times.
Traveling directly from Ireland to Cherbourg, in France, takes roughly twice as long as the U.K. route. The direct ferry route to Belgium’s Zeebrugge takes nearly three times as long. Alternative direct routes from Ireland to the U.K. do exist, such as Dublin to Liverpool; Rosslare to Pembroke, in Wales; or Rosslare to Fishguard, which is also in Wales.
“We’re geographically displaced in relation to mainland Europe,” said Verona Murphy, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association. “Everything that will happen through Brexit is going to affect us, hard or soft. We’re seeing signs of it already.”
Murphy’s difficulties are particularly acute because she works with the ultra-sensitive food business. Her haulage company Drumur Transport shifts refrigerated Irish beef from abattoirs in County Meath, near Dublin, across the U.K. and France to markets in northern Italy twice a week. It then brings back seasonal fruit such as kiwi and peaches.
Some 50 percent of Ireland’s hauliers serve the Continent, and 30 percent of them carry refrigerated goods, where every hour counts. In addition to customs checks, transiting a non-EU country could entail veterinary controls for food products.
Food distribution networks are timed like clockwork too. Irish exporters will often truck goods destined for sale in far-flung supermarkets within just a few days. Delays of just four to five hours — which could mean missed ferries, mandated rest times for truckers and spoiled goods — could prove massively disruptive.
“Timing is all important and now the product is packed in such a way that it goes straight to the supermarket shelf,” Murphy said. “If you miss the market, the value of the product is reduced.”
Paul Kelly, the director of Food Drink Ireland, a lobby, said that airplanes only really make sense for high-value products. Food products, on the other hand, tend to be of comparatively low value. “As a result you end up with a lot of truck movement taking place,” he said.
Customs checks at ports are the big worry. Inspectors will need to examine more freight post Brexit, which will entail delays. But there are also severe doubts about whether Dublin Port has enough space to conduct the checks, raising the danger of miles-long motorway tailbacks.
“We don’t have the capacity as we developed our ports in line with the free movement of goods and people, therefore there has never been the need for storage capacity,” Murphy said. Some 14 police officers are needed to check each arriving ship, she said, piling on the administrative costs.
Liam Lacey, director of the Irish Maritime Development Office, said Dublin Port is expanding but admitted that the reimposition of customs controls post Brexit was a complication.
“We didn’t design our ferry terminals over the course of the last 20 years to handle that sort of build up of traffic,” he said, adding that British ports were in a similar bind.
People at Dover port, for example, say they would simply be unable to expand physically to accommodate all the trucks held back for inspections.
Shipping containers are also an unappetizing option. Maritime routes are far slower, meaning that containers need to stay refrigerated for longer. Crossings from Dublin and Rosslare to Cherbourg and Zeebrugge are loaded with tourist traffic in the summer months, which could slow cargo down.
Lacey said moving toward so-called ConRO vessels — hybrid ships designed to take containers as well as trucks — could become attractive after Brexit. ConRO crossings already exist between Dublin and Rotterdam, but Lacey said these are still roughly 12 hours longer than the landbridge.
Irish exporters are desperate for a quick fix. One solution planners in Brussels, London and Dublin are considering is the so-called authorized economic operator system.
This would allow British and EU businesses to send goods across borders as long as they meet predetermined health and safety standards. Customs duties are paid quarterly, which would remove the need to check containers at borders. Instead, EU and British officials would conduct random checks — which could take place some distance from ports to avoid traffic jams.
Germany and Switzerland, as well as Sweden and Norway, have a similar arrangement.
A spokesperson for Revenue, Ireland’s government agency responsible for customs and tax, told POLITICO that the body sent staff to study the Swiss and Norway border models as part of its Brexit contingency planning. Revenue Chairman Niall Cody also told a committee meeting in Ireland’s parliament in May that customs and the impact on truck freight will be “one of the biggest challenges post Brexit.”
Food exporters and truckers hope Brexit negotiators can reach a deal but they’re also realistic. Flynn at the freight transport association noted that only 134 Irish companies were currently registered for the system, and that few companies would start thinking about it until confronted with delays.
Neither would it [the authorised economic operator system] be a panacea. With its extra checks, the system would still lead to delays, according to Murphy.
Kelly agreed: “The idea of frictionless movement is a myth. The idea is to minimize the amount of friction,” he said.
Murphy proposed onboard checks on a fraction of vehicles during the trip across the Irish Sea as one way to ease the burden. Another solution might be using an international convention to allow sealed containers to transit the U.K. without checks.
The key factor will be phasing in the new system. In Dublin, some Irish exporters have been told to prepare for a six-week window to adjust to a new system.
“Six weeks will be just pandemonium for people that need to start from scratch because we don’t operate customs ever, very few of us export outside the EU by land,” Murphy said.
Flynn warned that the prospects of no deal were grim. “We’re all looking for transition, in terms of whatever changes are going to be required … but effectively, if there’s no likelihood of a plan by October 2018 in terms of U.K.-EU negotiations you’re going to be without a doubt going into … a cliff-edge situation.”
Author: Joshua Posaner and Emmet Livingstone