With Britain and the EU poised to start discussing future trade arrangements following their planned divorce – Brexit – in 2019, European ports are stepping up their focus on the likely repercussions of those developments and how they should respond.
In Britain, for example, national port and shipping industry organizations are attempting to highlight the main port-related issues which they believe need to be tackled during those discussions. Looking further ahead, other organizations are putting forward the case for what they claim could be significant new post-Brexit business development opportunities for British ports.
Meanwhile, in continental Europe, Rotterdam, the region’s leading container port and a major gateway for Asian trade, has issued a statement outlining some of its key Brexit-related concerns, particularly in relation to expected wide-ranging changes to EU/Britain customs and tariff arrangements.
Right now, the current consensus view among industry observers is that the main impact of Brexit when it comes to overall European port operations is likely to be on the shortsea container and ro-ro sectors between the EU and Britain rather than activities involving Asian and other global ocean cargo flows to and from the region.
Specifically, the suggestion is that key shortsea ro-ro ports − for example, Zeebrugge in Belgium, Dover in southeast England (a key port for cross-Channel traffic to/from continental Europe) and Holyhead in north Wales (a major gateway for trade to/from EU member state the Republic of Ireland) − appear potentially more vulnerable to Brexit-related problems than leading deepsea container gateways like Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg and Le Havre in continental Europe and Felixstowe, Tilbury, London Gateway and Southampton in Britain.
The perceived risks to European shortsea ports were highlighted by David Dingle, chairman of Maritime UK, an organization representing that country’s shipping, port, marine and business service industries, in a statement emphasizing the importance of the EU and Britain securing “as frictionless a trading relationship as possible.”
“That is in the interests of both sides of the Channel. Failure to get that frictionless deal will not only see delays and disruption at (British) ports like Dover, Holyhead and Portsmouth, but also in the EU at ports like Zeebrugge, Calais (France) and Dublin (Republic of Ireland),” he claimed.
Similar points were made by Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association (BPA). “We remain concerned that new customs requirements could cause particular challenges for roll-on roll-off ferry ports which handle tens of thousands of HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) travelling between the UK and the EU each day,” he said.
In addition to possible operational issues arising from Brexit, some European ports are also concerned about the risk of a related downturn in some EU/Britain shortsea cargo flows, notably in the ro-ro sector.
That point was highlighted by the Zeebrugge port authority last month (January) when it published a summary of its cargo volume figures for 2017. The authority reported that while overall ro-ro new vehicle traffic had grown by 2% for the year as a whole to just over 2.8 million vehicles, the final month had seen a 4% decline compared with December 2016.
That December performance, suggested the authority, appeared to be down to a ‘Brexit effect,’ specifically lower vehicle sales in Britain. “The port sees this as a warning towards the growth of new vehicle traffic between Zeebrugge and the UK for the future,” it added.
However, while the current focus when it comes to the potential impact of Brexit on European ports primarily relates to the shortsea sector, there are also concerns about possible knock-on effects for other operations at some of Europe’s major gateways, including Asian deepsea container flows.
For example, it is still unclear how worldwide ocean cargo transhipment activities in both continental European and British ports might be affected by whatever new EU/Britain trade arrangements are finally agreed.
More specifically, some observers fear any future slowing down of customs clearance for shortsea/ro-ro traffic between the EU and Britain could create general port area congestion in certain deepsea ports, potentially resulting in delays to deepsea container and other cargo movements to and from their hinterlands.
That last point was highlighted in the recent Port of Rotterdam Authority statement which outlined both its plans to give “the highest priority” to maintaining the quality and capacity of customs operations and some of the general areas of Brexit-related concern for that Dutch gateway.
“According to the Dutch customs authorities, as of March 30, 2019 (the planned date for Brexit), more than a hundred well-trained extra customs officers will be required in the Rotterdam Rijnmond area,” stated the authority.
“In addition, extra inspections and inspection points for the Dutch food and consumer product safety authority are needed. Furthermore, the necessary additional veterinarians to execute the inspections will be a major challenge as well. Of course, this will also apply to customs in the UK. It remains to be seen whether customs capacity from 2019 can handle all the extra declarations.”
Expanding on that final point, the Rotterdam port authority warned that customs declarations might increase waiting times, subsequently increasing costs for freight forwarders, operators and terminal operators, as well as creating additional congestion in the port area.
“Shortsea and ro-ro terminals expect available waiting space for lorries to be limited. This will be one of the major challenges for the Port of Rotterdam Authority to facilitate. Not only space at the terminal but also waiting times may have an impact on the use of the public infrastructure and could result in congestion on the route to terminals.”
Another important issue which needed to be considered during the trade talks, continued the Rotterdam port authority, was digital communication. “It is important for the EU to negotiate a proper coordination of the digital infrastructures. Information technology systems in the Netherlands and the UK must be able to interconnect.”
In a further sign of the general growing concern among major European ports about the possible impact of the UK’s departure from the EU, key Belgian deepsea gateway Antwerp has just announced plans to appoint a full-time representative in the UK, based in London, “in order to keep in closer touch with the economic situation there now that Brexit is looming closer.”
Meanwhile, looking beyond the immediate impact on European ports of new trade and customs arrangements between Britain and the EU following Brexit, some observers have suggested that longer-term, the British ports industry could benefit from the establishment of free ports/free trade zones around that country.
One such body is the Centre for Policy Studies, an independent UK think tank which promotes free market economics. In a report outlining potential trade and manufacturing development opportunities for Britain after Brexit, the centre argued that the national government should take advantage of the “new economic freedom” and “create free ports across the nation.”
In that context, it pointed out that while free trade zones could be set up almost anywhere, “the emphasis that they place on facilitating trade makes ports (or airports) one of the most common locations.”
However, BPA’s Ballantyne played down that idea, suggesting following its discussions with various British government bodies to date, “we understand that a ‘free ports’ policy is, for the time being at least, off the agenda.”
By Phil Hastings
Europe Correspondent | London