Last week, I was in one of hundreds of cars awaiting a midday sailing from Dublin Port to Holyhead, some 100 kilometres away across the Irish Sea at the north-western most extremity of Wales.
The week before Christmas, the port was busy, with ships leaving every 20 minutes or so, some car ferries, others Roll on-Roll off ferries just for trucks, and other container vessels carrying goods and exports to the United Kingdom and larger European ports such as Rotterdam where they will be transferred to giant container ships and carried across the world.
While there’s been a lot written these past months about the land border between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland — it is just 120 miles (193km) away, zigzags for some 500km and is as porous as a colander and would be logistically impossible to seal — this port and another, Rosslare, on the southeast bottom corner of Ireland, will be Ground Zero when that no-deal Brexit happens in three months’ time.
It is here and in Rosslare that the real effect of the Brits’ calamitous decision to leave the European Union (EU) will be felt most, for Ireland at least. Up and down Britain, the effect will be multiple times’ worse, with motorways on the roads to Dover, Folkstone, Newhaven, Hull, Tilbury, Harwich, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton, Fleetwood, Poole and countless other harbours with continental ferries and routes jammed by kilometres-long queues of trucks.
And then, from Spain, through France, Belgium and Netherlands, Norway and some Baltic nations, there will be similar lines, though less so.
Come 11:01pm on March 29, 2019, every truck arriving from the UK into any EU port will need to be inspected. And that will involve physically opening those trucks, making sure that the paperwork matches the load, accessing the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) list of tariffs, applying the appropriate rate — most but not all are at the 8 per cent-mark.
There are 164 nations that are members of the WTO. And everything that moves under the WTO rules are assigned numbers, all part of its “Harmonised System”. Basically, everything that moves is given at least a six-digit number that describes its category.
And it’s complicated.
There are 99 broad categories, which form the first two numbers, with sub-categories coming in the following four.
Here’s an example: 04 is dairy products, eggs and other edible animal products. These are then divided by adding more digits. So, 0403 would indicate it’s milk, or 0403.10 would be yoghurt, or 0403.10.11 would be low-fat yoghurt.
But if it was yoghurt made, for example, from goat’s milk, then the coding is different.
Yep, complicated. You get the picture. Now imagine every truck leaving the UK having to be checked, figuring out what’s on the truck, assign numbers — or if numbers have been assigned by shippers, making sure that those numbers are right. Then assessing tariffs — and tariffs are not the same on all products according to WTO rules.
That truck will then have to be placed under a customs seal, with that seal number recorded on paperwork and records, either electronically or by hand.
And once the customs officers are happy with that paperwork, the tariffs have to be paid.
Who pays it? And when?
Does a Polish truck driver have to pay? What if his company isn’t bonded or has a bad payment record? Have those tariffs been paid in advance?
And that’s what the British voted for two years ago, and that’s what they will get come March 29.
That’s what ‘taking back control’ means. That’s what the lies peddled by Boris Johnson, David Davis and others are bringing. And the next time a Brexiteer is proud to say that there won’t be chaos, that there is a WTO system in place, this is exactly what they mean. Chaos, any which way you look at it.
When the Brits are told that the doomsday scenarios about supermarket shelves running empty are simply wrong, try reaching for a plain low-fat yoghurt that isn’t in the fridge because the coding is wrong and the tariff is unpaid, or the truck driver is waiting for days for his load to be processed. And that’s just a 0403.10.11. If you wanted a strawberry-flavoured low-fat yoghurt, that’s 0403.10.11.04. Or is it?
And, by the time the load is processed, there’s every likelihood it might be out of its Best Before date, and the price for any other yoghurt that might be available is increased because of demand and supply and higher processing costs for the customs officers to check codes.
So, when the automakers who employ more than 100,000 warn that any delay at ports will affect jobs, they need to be listened to. And for every job in a car factory, there are another eight that are created in shipping, ancillary manufacturing, transport, maintenance and services. Their logistics chain is based on being able to get from A to B as quickly as possible. And any 15 minute delay will cost £1 million (Dh4.64 million). So, what’s the code for automotive parts, made from aluminium but with rubber parts: Wiper blades and arms?
Now imagine simply driving a truck into a ship, and driving it off the other end.
That’s free trade.
That’s a customs zone.
And that’s what the Brits have given up by taking back control.
Think of the chaos a drone caused at Gatwick Airport last week. And now think of the chaos to come.
Yep, Happy New Year indeed.