A hooded crow scurries along the low tide line here at Rosslare Strand on a cold clear February morning. The black and grey bird is in the company of other feathered visitors from Northern Europe and further afield who spend the winter here in Ireland — Arctic terns flittering through the sand, beached shells and seaweed.
Just off shore, a cormorant disappears under the wintry waves in search of a fish, reappearing about 15 metres away. Over the horizon, there are storm clouds gathering — winter storm Erik will die soon, Irish forecasters issued orange alerts for the heavy rain and driving gales it will bring. And in Rosslare Harbour — the Europort — past where the long strand with its birds and broken shells end, the afternoon Stena Line ferry ship, ending its nearly four-hour voyage from Pembroke in Wales across the Irish Sea, is slowly turning her stern to meet the pier before disgorging its passengers, cars, trucks and trailers — to reload and make the return trip some hours later. It will be heading out just as Storm Erik hits.
This port, on the southeast corner of Ireland, is the closest commercial harbour to continental Europe, the second-busiest port in the Republic of Ireland — and in four weeks’ time from today, will be on the front line of a new reality between a European Union of 27 member states, and the United Kingdom on the first day of its selected course of life outside the political, social and economic trading bloc.
Here, in Rosslare, where ferry services also link Ireland with the French port of Cherbourg 18 hours away over the sea around Land’s End, the southern-most tip of England, this is the face of the jilted spouse cast aside by the UK’s divorce after 45 marriage to the EU.
And no one knows what this month — never mind the years to follow — will bring from Brexit.
And with four weeks to go before Brexit official happens — at 11:01 pm on March 29, no one knows whether there will be a deal, allowing for an orderly withdrawal, or a no deal Brexit, meaning the overnight introduction of border, customs and other regulatory checks on everything that moves from this port, from Dublin, about 160 km to the north further up the east coast of Ireland, or from any of the hundred or so ports that will handle the tens of thousands of lorries and containers that up to Brexit Day moved freely across all 28 national borders that make the EU, plus other nations such as Andorra, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland that are part of the wider European Economic Area — the so-called customs union.
“Whatever happens March 29, we’ll be ready for it,” Eamonn O’Reilly, the general manager of Dublin Port, told Irish national broadcaster RTE, adding that the authority started planning in earnest for Brexit some 15 months ago.
And so far, the port has spent about €30 million (Dh125 million) to change the infrastructure to build inspection posts needed by inspectors who will be checking every load requiring customs clearance and new health and agriculture checks that will be required once the UK leaves the EU.
It’s the level of detailed checks that leave many British analysts predicting a food shortage on supermarket shelves, a sudden price rise and even leaving the UK short of medicines and other critical supplies, with Channel ports in northern Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway dealing with long lines of trucks awaiting clearance for their loads going and coming from a UK outside the customs union.
In four weeks’ time if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, World Trade Organisations will automatically apply, with every load having to meet the tariff-specific rules laid down by the 164 member nations and another 23 nations with WTO observer status.
And yes, if it sounds like a lot of red tape — that’s because it is.
The immediate impact on Ireland of a no deal Brexit would be a 2 to 3 per cent drop in its gross domestic product, with an increase in food prices due to delays in shipping between the EU through the UK to the island of Ireland.
At Rosslare Europort, general manager Glenn Carr is doing a round of media interviews to assure an increasingly worried Irish public, business owners and transporters, that the facility is ready come Brexit Day.
Truckers using the Stena Line and Irish Ferry crossings directly to and from the UK are being encouraged to use a new app that has been specifically developed by the Irish government and its Revenue Commissioners to ease customs checks — and by the time an incoming ferry reaches what is being described as virtual traffic lights at Tuskar Rock lighthouse some 10 km out at sea, the truck drivers should know whether they have been given green, orange or red notices for their respective loads.
The traffic light app is part of the no deal Brexit contingency planning measures that have been under way for months — efforts that have taken on a new urgency since early December when it became evident the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the EU27 and the UK government was to be rejected by a majority of MPs at Westminster in mid January.
Prior to boarding an Ireland-bound ferry in the UK, lorry drivers will need to upload details of the goods they are carrying on a declaration form contained in the app. By the time they reach Tuskar Rock, or the Kish Bank lighthouse offshore approaching Dublin Port, the drivers will know whether they’ve been routed through green, orange or red channels. Green means the truckers are free to leave the ports on arrival; orange means there are questions about their paperwork and they’ll need to stop at a trade facilitation counter to clear up issues before they can proceed; and red means they must proceed to a new central control compound where the loads will be check by customs, agricultural, health, environmental or other officers tasked with upholding EU standards and laws on everything from boxes of tinned sardines to computer parts, building materials to plugs – anything and everything that moves from the UK into of a zone where the free movement of goods, services and people was guaranteed. And that combined 27-member bloc covers more than 500 million people and represents the world’s third-largest marketplace.
Just outside Rosslare, the Irish government has recently purchased a bank-repossessed car import property that used to hold 9,000 cars. Now it is to be turned into that red zone, where trucks needing checks will be processed. As part of Ireland’s contingency planning for a no deal Brexit, 600 new customs officers are being hired, and at least 30 will be permanently based in the small seaside town.
When UK officials look to technological solutions to remove the need for checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the traffic light app is one such idea. But with 30,000 people living and working across the border each day, and with hundreds of trucks crossing the frontier now ever hour — it is no different than driving between Abu Dhabi and Dubai now before Brexit — it has been dismissed by both Irish government and EU officials as being too unwieldy and unworkable. A ferry with 200 trucks during a four-hour crossing is one thing, a thousand trucks in any 15-munite spell is simply unmanageable.
Rosslare Europort will stage dummy runs before Brexit takes force.
“Our focus is on how we can get everything in and our quickly,” Carr says. “Are there quicker ways to turn a ship around? Can we knock 10 minutes off a turnaround?”
Last year, 150,000 trucks made the trip between Rosslare and the UK. In Dublin, 400,000 trucks used the port heading to the UK, and Carr sees Rosslare as being a natural release valve to relieve pressure on Dublin.
“We can take double the number of ships here tomorrow without any real change or hardship on us,” he says. “We have the capacity.”
Rosslare’s four berths are only in use 38 per cent of the time.
Both Rosslare and Dublin ports have stepped up their ability to handle truck-only ferries that will travel direct to France, meaning that goods being exported from and imported directly into Ireland from the rest of the EU will continue to move freely — with no need for customs checks or those traffic lights in the Irish Sea.
Last spring, a new truck-only ferry that can accommodate 600 trucks at a time sailing between Dublin and Zeebrugge in Belgium was launched in the Irish capital. The Celine is the world’s largest short sea roll-on roll-off vessel, and a twin ship is expected later this year as well — allowing trucks from within the customs zone to simply avoid the new economically and politically insular UK in four weeks from now.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.