While uncertainty hangs over the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the European ports which send millions of tonnes of goods to Britain every year have been planning for every eventuality – including the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Will their plans be enough to avert chaos?
For centuries, barges from the inland waterways of Europe and ships from around the world have sailed in and out of Rotterdam’s harbour.
Today the port is the 10th biggest in the world. Every year it handles “about 470 million tonnes of goods – about the same volume as being handled in all British ports together”, says Leon Willems of the Rotterdam Port Authority.
Officials are proud of the efficiency of operations here. Much of this is down to the use of an electronic system known as Portbase, which handles a myriad of digitised documents such as transport bookings and custom declarations, removing the need for physical paperwork.
But there’s another important industry in this busy part of southern Netherlands that is also proud of its productivity – agriculture. The road from of Rotterdam towards the North Sea is edged for miles by vast areas of greenhouses. Crops grown include tomatoes and cucumbers – often destined for the UK.
The intensity of farming here has helped to turn the country into one of the world’s biggest food exporters. “It has to do with the efficiency of the farmers,” says Michel van der Maas of the Dutch food safety authority.
“Because we are a small country, we have learned to do things in a tightly-packed area.”
The efficiency of Dutch farmers is mirrored by a smooth and fast delivery process. Annika Hult, director of North Sea trade for ferry operator Stena Line, says a British supermarket can place an order for tomatoes in the morning and the items can be on the shelves the following day.
Trucks loaded with fresh produce can arrive as little as 15 minutes before one of Stena’s giant ships departs for the UK, says Ms Hult. “That is how lean and ‘just in time’ the process is today… we are really making modern society work.”
But some Dutch business leaders fear that a giant spanner may soon be thrown into the works of this well-oiled machine – a no-deal Brexit.
As for Brexit preparations in the UK, HM Revenue and Customs says “the government’s priority is to keep goods moving and avoid delays at the border”, and that as the UK’s customs authority it “will act to ensure that border processes are as smooth as possible, without compromising security”.
Its plans include simplified procedures for some goods arriving from Europe, in order to minimise potential traffic congestion. These measures will allow many lorries to pass quickly through ports like Dover, with customs and other formalities being dealt with later.