The below is an extract from Economists for Free Trade’s new report, No Deal is the Best Deal for Britain
It has become clear that Remainers have a big problem: they can find little positive to say for either why we should remain in the EU or for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Their total argument has been and continues to be based on ‘fear’. Nowhere has this been more apparent than their invectives about No Deal – i.e. a World Trade Deal where the UK leaves the EU on 29th March without a trade deal under WTO rules.
The Government, together with Establishment figures and the commentariat, have fallen over themselves warning of short-term perils – first, chaos at our ports and second, claims that somehow a host of existing rules and regulations will become inoperative as of 11.01 pm on 29th March. Day-to-day life, as we know it, will cease to exist with regard to travel, business contracts, citizens’ rights and even the ability of performing artists to perform.
This alleged short-term disruption is deemed to be so apocalyptic that it is considered not even worth thinking about if there might be a long-term upside. Thus, the cacophony about the short-term has shouted down any fundamental thought about the inherent benefits of No Deal.
What is the reality?
Disruption in the Ports: What Disruption?
It is claimed that on 30th March UK ports will have seized up due to delays required to process customs declarations. Furthermore, since UK goods will no longer comply with EU standards, onerous inspections will be required – adding to the bedlam.
These claims should not be taken seriously. They do not reflect what actually takes place at ports today and they fail to take into account the legal and competitive environment within which ports operate.
1. Post-Brexit port procedures will not be materially different from those of today and the required changes mainly are in hand. The image of customs officials with clipboards crawling over trucks and stamping approvals on customs forms has not been valid for decades. Today, all customs declarations are computerised and prepared at the facility of the importer/exporter or their designated customs broker. Shipments are pre-cleared by computers talking to computers so that trucks rolling into the ferry terminal essentially are waived through automatically. This is how the many UK ports that deal with shipments from non-EU countries under WTO rules operate today.
To accommodate Brexit, HMRC has adopted a ‘belt and braces’ strategy by which the existing Customs Handling of Import and Export (CHIEF) system has been doubled in capacity to accommodate the increased volume of EU-UK customs declarations. In addition, a new EU-wide customs declaration system (CDS) – which was already in the development pipeline before the referendum – will be run in parallel. HMRC has repeatedly stated before select committees and in its own publications that CHIEF and CDS are already operational and will be ready to deal with EU shipments on 29th March.
A potential issue is that some businesses may not have their software interfaces with CHIEF/CDS operational by March. The service industry of customs brokers should have the necessary systems and expertise to support such businesses (mainly small) that may not have the required internal capability. However, it may be the case that not all customs brokers will be sufficiently up to speed and have the required capacity to fill the gap completely.
To alleviate this risk, there are simplifications to existing procedures that HMRC can authorise and HMRC has already announced that for the 60 per cent of EU trade that is imports, it will ‘prioritise flow over compliance’ – i.e. it will wave vehicles through to avoid queues, even if customs declarations have not been properly completed. As shipments are pre-approved, normally, if a trader has not completed the required declarations, the shipment will not be authorised. The shipment may be delayed but it will not contribute to congestion at the port.
2. Inspection regimes will not change. What about the much ballyhooed inspections that Remainers claim will create delays and miles of parked trucks along the M20? In fact, as HMRC has repeatedly emphasised, there is no reason for much to change. Under WTO rules, inspections are intelligence-led, based on computerised risk assessments and generally have little to do with customs issues. Security, drugs and illegal migration are much greater concerns.
Since there is no reason why these risk factors should change after Brexit, HMRC intends to maintain the existing inspection regime post-Brexit, which currently results in only about 1 per cent of (even non-EU) goods being inspected.
The claim that new onerous inspections at the border will be required after Brexit because UK goods will somehow no longer meet EU standards is hypothetical fancy. After over 40 years with identical product standards and regulations – and contrary to what many doomsayers may wish the public to believe – UK goods will not suddenly become hazardous to the health and safety of EU consumers the day after Brexit. Last week the President of the Boulogne and Calais Ports made clear that the Port of Calais plans no additional inspections relative to what they do today.
So, it is clear there is no practical reason why disruption should suddenly occur in the ports following Brexit.
3. EU recalcitration and discrimination would be illegal. The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and the Kyoto Convention of the World Customs Organisation commit the EU and all 187 WTO countries to making border processing activities as streamlined as possible. These measures are enforced by WTO Panels and the WTO Appellate Body that are backed by the international legal system.
The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement mandates a seamless (computerised, pre-cleared) border enabling trade to continue passing through ports with minimal checks, pre-cleared by computer, with all relevant information pre-entered at low cost straight from the loading logs. The EU’s own Customs Code requires customs declarations to be done online and allows these to be entered with as little as one hour’s notice.
There is no WTO requirement for border checks and, where physical inspections are necessary, the Agreements require that they be intelligence-led and not be more trade-restrictive than necessary – i.e. they should conform to the current regime applying to both the EU and the UK where only about 1 per cent of goods arriving from non-EU countries are physically inspected. The WTO’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures does allow for border checks to ensure the safety of imported food but stipulates that such checks should not be used as a surreptitious means of inhibiting cross-border trade or “arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate between WTO members where identical or similar conditions prevail… SPS measures shall not be applied in a manner that would constitute a disguised restriction on international trade”.
With regard to standards, WTO rules on non-discrimination on standards mandate that, once the EU or any other WTO member has announced their proposed domestic standards, these must apply without exception to all foreign exporters.
So, if the EU were to ignore the practical, common-sense reasons for continuing to process EU-UK trade as efficiently as they do today, they would be acting illegally and could face lawsuits. The WTO dispute process is far from toothless, enjoying an excellent compliance record among its many hundred rulings over decades of practice.
4. Competition will keep the EU in check. Even if common business sense fails and the EU is tempted to flout international law, competitive pressures will rein them in. Dover-Calais is the major concern in this regard because it has roll on/roll-off (RoRo) facilities accounting for about 30 per cent of EU-UK trade – and Calais is in the only EU country where political leaders have signalled possible uncooperative post-Brexit actions.
Fortunately, numerous other freight ferry routes – with RoRo capabilities – already exist between several UK and continental ports. Dutch and Belgian port operators have already made it clear that if an EU port – say Calais – were to attempt to complicate border procedures artificially to inhibit UK exports, ports such as Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Antwerp (amongst others) would be keen to grab the business and quickly fill the gap.
It is estimated that sufficient capacity exists to handle 30 to 40 percent of Dover-Calais freight shipments. The Dutch sensibly have built up their customs facilities, hiring more inspectors and setting aside land at their ports for the limited additional inspections that may be required, primarily for agricultural products.
In practice, it is very unlikely to come to this, as pragmatic local French authorities and port operators have offered assurances for continued cooperation on numerous occasions, aware that they will lose out to their European neighbours if they attempt to frustrate Brexit maliciously. The latest such assurance was on the Today programme on 9th January when the President of the Boulogne and Calais Ports confounded his BBC interviewer by making clear that Calais will be ready for UK business by 29th March and he explained that they plan no additional inspections relative to what they do today and detailed a long list of specific investments and actions they have taken over the past year to avoid any possible congestion or delay.
Brexit will not lead to a blockade in the English Channel, as strangely many wish us to believe.
Life will continue after 29th March
Much of the drummed-up anxiety regarding “crashing out” of the EU has begun to abate as the UK Government, along with its EU counterparts, has ramped up preparations for a No Deal Brexit in light of the impasse in EU-UK negotiations. Despite the tireless efforts of the media and the status quo Establishment which still insist that the UK will collapse into recession and experience a severe supply shock and civil unrest, it is slowly emerging that trading with the EU under WTO terms will be manageable, albeit with some possible ‘bumps in the road’ in the early days.
Thus, work seems to be at last under way, and it should now be stepped up with enthusiasm – remembering that many problems can be lubricated by a £39 billion saving.
For example, an increasing number of the crucial non-WTO “side deals” that commentators gleefully warned were essential to avoid the devastation of post-EU isolation are now materialising. Aeroplane landing rights, drivers’ licences, euro clearing and derivative contract issues are now settled.
Many EU citizens living in the UK are already following the straightforward process for obtaining permanent residency. In recent days, the Dutch, German, Italian and Belgian governments have already announced post-Brexit citizens’ rights for UK nationals living in their countries. And the Spanish are establishing procedures for healthcare to be delivered to UK citizens when in Spain. We also have promises from the EU and Ireland that there will be no hard border, as one isn’t really needed and never was.
Furthermore, Lord Lilley and Brendan Chilton’s excellent report, 30 Truths about Leaving on WTO Terms, has detailed a long list of agreements that have emerged in recent weeks between the UK, the EU and EU member states affecting day-to-day life. These cover a wide range of areas including, for example, ‘micro’ trade agreements, medicines, clean water, air travel, aircraft manufacturing, haulage, agricultural and animal products, mobile telephones, auto type approvals and VAT rules. And – never fear – even British opera singers, musicians and other performers will still be able to tour the EU.
It is becoming ever more evident that civil servants – in spite of their public comments being constrained by ministers – have been working quietly behind the scenes to ensure minimal post-Brexit disruption.
Thus, it appears the closer we get to the alleged ‘cliff edge’, the more countries on both sides of the Channel are facing up to their responsibilities. The ‘cliff’ now appears to be turning into a grassy slope.
Remember the Millennium Bug? Perhaps we have been here before.
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