Truckloads of aging fish and spoiled potatoes, frayed tempers and hours or even days spent in border queues are some of the experiences of hauliers 50 days into post-Brexit rules.
The truckers fear that the chaos will only get worse once the U.K. begins to implement documentation requirements for animal and plant products in April and full customs declaration requirements in July.
So far the encounter with the red tape governing trade now that the U.K. is a third country has been pretty bruising. Although the Christmas Eve post-Brexit trade deal prevented a cliff edge, it didn’t avert vast amounts of new paperwork.
Jan van Oostveen, a Dutch transporter who’s been moving fish from Scotland to the Netherlands for over 30 years, had expected post-Brexit problems on the British side, but what he called “nitpicking” Dutch customs checks have turned his job into a nightmare, he said.
“There’s a paper border,” said van Oostveen. “I carry some 30-40 A4 pages with me for my load of fish.”
A truckload of Scottish mackerel and mackerel filets the Dutchman drove to the Netherlands earlier this month was held up for more than 30 hours over a paperwork mistake that snowballed into new documentation requests and more queuing. Food safety authorities only checked the label, not the fish, something he said “made him boil” as the fresh fish aged while the officials responsible for quality checks dragged their feet.
“There’s nothing wrong with that fish. Until December 31, that same fish came into the EU without a health certificate; nothing,” he said, adding: “There are many companies that aren’t carrying their fish to Europe anymore,” as some transporters put “astronomically high” prices on shipments to the Continent.
Eric Mattheeuws, who heads up Mattheeuws Transport, a family business in the west of Belgium, said a load of potatoes shipped from Dover to Dunkirk last Wednesday arrived spoiled in the Belgian town of Poperinge the following Tuesday, after being returned to Dover and routed back through Calais.
Mattheeuws also complained that small mismatches between the paperwork and cargo are causing shipments to be stopped for hours. “It’s those tiny details that could make you think the English and the French are waging a small war,” he said.
That comes at a high cost for the company that sent the potatoes, he said. “You do the maths: It’ll cost that man €2,500 per truck, and those potatoes are worth nothing.”
Many of these problems happen because poorly prepared businesses, particularly the smallest ones, are filling out customs documents incorrectly, logistics experts said.
Freight giants such as DB Schenker and DPD temporarily suspended services to the U.K. in January stating rampant errors in customs paperwork. Those difficulties haven’t disappeared, said Niels Beuck, the director of German logistics association DSLV, noting that despite weeks of practice, 80 percent of paperwork is still not being correctly filled out.
“The shippers don’t know anything about customs,” said Łukasz Zawadzki, a freight forwarding manager for Poland-based transportation company Sachs Trans. “They think: ‘We load the truck and the hauliers do everything.’ No! The haulier is only a haulier,” he said.
Although those problems are likely to lessen as more companies learn how to navigate their way through the paperwork, the higher cost is something that’s not going to change, said Mattheeuws.
“I’m assuming that in the long term we’ll be able to do normal transport, with the difference that it costs €20 per ton more,” he said, warning there will be “shifts” of freight movements as a result.
For transport companies willing to endure the border hassles, moving goods between the U.K. and the Continent isn’t bad business as shipping prices to the U.K. from Europe are currently “super,” Zawadzki said. Truckers are earning so much that they can afford to return to the Continent with empty containers and so avoid long and expensive border holdups.
“Nobody wants to load goods from the U.K. to Europe because there are a lot of problems with customs,” he said. “It’s one big chaos.”
Industry and government estimates that about half the trucks traveling to the EU from the U.K. are empty, compared with 30 percent normally. That’s pushing transport prices up even further, said Beuck.
Sooner or later, companies will adapt to the new customs formalities, but smaller businesses are rethinking cross-Channel shipments. “If you’re talking about some small goods with a very low profit margin, it might not be a very economically feasible way to do business,” he said.
But now the logistics industry is worried that coming U.K. border checks will set off another round of chaos.
“It’s giving us a big headache, to be honest,” said Beuck. “The difficulties that we had since the beginning of January may start all over again.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.