Dover holdups blamed on signature demands of French customs | Brexit
Demands by French customs officials over the type of signature they will accept on post-Brexit paperwork have been blamed by UK business leaders for causing long queues of lorries on approach roads to Dover.
Two years after Boris Johnson smiled for the cameras, fountain pen in hand hovering over the EU withdrawal agreement, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said a minor disagreement over signatures on customs paperwork had arisen between Britain and France.
William Bain, the head of trade policy at the BCC, said the trade body had heard from UK exporters that French customs officials were requesting a wet signature on border documents for shipments of animals and plant products from the UK.
However, he said much of the documentation is produced digitally, creating unexpected holdups on deliveries from Dover to Calais.
“One of the issues at Dover currently appears to be linked to the export of food products across the Channel,” Bain said. “Like many of the problems this looks to be down to a differing interpretation of how the trade arrangements work after leaving the EU.
“It is the latest in a string of issues with the trade deal that speaks to the wider problems of interpretation, inconsistent application and glaring gaps in its coverage.”
Documents with a wet signature from an official veterinarian have been required by the EU for imports of food and animal feed from the UK since the end of the Brexit transition on 31 December 2020. While electronic certification would have been possible using an EU computer system, the UK turned down an offer from Brussels to use the platform and built its own system instead.
A UK government spokesperson said that a shortage of vessels due to ship-refitting was the primary cause of delays at Dover rather than new customs processes, although they also urged the EU to “take a pragmatic approach as the new rules come into effect”.
“We’ve always been clear that being outside the single market and the customs union would mean changes and that businesses would need to adapt to new processes,” the spokesperson said.
The dispute over wet signatures is reminiscent of delays in the 1980s when France ordered that all foreign-made video recorders entering the country be cleared by a nine-person customs depot in Poitiers, hundreds of miles from northern ports where goods shipped from Japan docked.
In the two years since Brexit, UK exports to the EU have fallen sharply. Although economists say there are difficulties disentangling the impact from the fallout of Covid-19, which has caused severe disruption to global trade, Britain appears to have been hit harder than comparable advanced economies.
According to the consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics, UK exports in November were 12.9% below their 2018 average level. By contrast, data for October from the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis in the Netherlands showed real goods exports from advanced economies were 1% above their 2018 average.
The BCC said that on the second anniversary of Brexit, and with “huge lorry queues” reported at Dover last week, urgent action to improve trade with Europe was required.
It said three-fifths of UK exporters (60%) it surveyed in November reported difficulties in trading with the EU, up from 49% in January 2021. The UK government introduced full customs controls on EU imports from 1 January 2022, ending a grace period designed to smooth the transition from Brexit.
Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for international trade, said ministers needed to prioritise reducing red tape and delays. “If ministers won’t act on the chamber’s ideas they need to explain quickly what they are going to do to keep trade flowing.”
Bain said it was possible for the UK and the EU to take pragmatic steps towards reaching new understandings on the consistent interpretation of the post-Brexit trade and cooperation agreement.
“No one is expecting goods to flow as freely across the Channel now as they did prior to Brexit. But the way the trade agreement is being interpreted in 27 different EU countries is a major headache for UK business – especially smaller firms without the cash reserves to set up new EU based arrangements.”