LONDON — British businesses are warning of a new wave of post-Brexit trade disruption because European Union (EU) exporters are not ready for United Kingdom (UK) customs changes which start this month, and Britain’s port infrastructure might be unprepared too.
Britain left the European Union’s single market in January 2021 but it has repeatedly delayed imposing checks on EU imports. By contrast, the EU immediately enforced its rules, leading to port delays in 2021 and prompting some British exporters — such as cheese-makers and high-end beef farmers — to give up on selling to the bloc, at least initially.
Make UK, representing manufacturers, said in December that 90% of firms it surveyed still faced problems doing business with the EU with customs and clearance the biggest barrier.
Marco Forgione, Director General of the Institute of Export & International Trade, representing UK importers, said large EU firms would probably cope with Britain’s new rules but smaller ones — such as specialist food exporters — might struggle.
Some of them might decide it has become too complicated to trade with the UK and stop exporting, Mr. Forgione said. “That then leads to price pressure and the possibility of scarcity,” he said.
Britain has postponed full implementation of its post-Brexit border controls on food and fresh products five times due to worries about port disruption and the cost-of-living crisis.
But its new Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) comes into force on Jan. 31 and will be introduced in three phases.
Initially, EU exporters of animal and plant products, such as eggs, dairy, meat and berries, will be required to present Export Health Certificates (EHCs) to British authorities.
But physical checks on shipments will only start on April 30 followed by a requirement for safety and security certificates from Oct. 31.
“We remain committed to delivering the most advanced border in the world,” a government spokesperson said.
William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said there was a risk of congestion and delays when the checks start in April.
Britain imports up to 70% of its fresh food from the EU in the winter months, falling to about 30% in warmer months, with as many as 1,000 trucks daily arriving at its ports.
“Will the government enforce by preventing material which doesn’t have an electronic EHC from entering the GB border? Or does it let stuff in and then simply enforce through contact with the companies involved afterwards?” Mr. Bain said.
“The government’s not telling us what they’re going to do.”
The British Retail Consortium and the Fresh Produce Consortium have also expressed concern. The British Meat Processors Association is worried that a lack of veterinary capacity in the EU might slow health certification.
James Barnes, chair of the Horticultural Trades Association, said there was a risk that the UK’s new border infrastructure, processes and IT systems would not be ready for April, the biggest month for plant shipments.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s happening when we think things aren’t ready and at the busiest time of year,” Mr. Barnes said.
The government said all infrastructure and systems were ready or on track to be ready by April and it would implement checks carefully with a view to avoiding delays.
The Dutch Association of Wholesalers in Floricultural Products called for a delay in the UK border checks until 2025.
That plea fell on deaf ears, but with a British national election expected in 2024, businesses hope the government might adopt a light touch to avoid delays and shortages.
“They’ve got the powers to dial up or dial down the mode of enforcement that they want to use, so it’s entirely in their hands to wave stuff through,” said the BCC’s Mr. Bain. — Reuters