Britain’s leading EU trade partners are lagging behind with preparations for a possible hard Brexit, with many member states likely to have no extra customs inspectors in place for at least a year after the UK is scheduled to leave the bloc, an analysis by the Financial Times shows.
With goods exports from the UK to the EU worth £143.4bn annually, fears are growing that lack of investment in customs staff and infrastructure could cause long delays at EU ports and the land border with the Irish Republic if the two sides fail to strike a trade deal by the time Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.
David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, said last week that a lack of French investment in customs infrastructure could leave “backlogs of vehicles in the UK”.
British ministers are stepping up contingency planning for a possible “no deal” scenario, with UK officials expecting to need up to 5,000 extra staff to cope with a potential fivefold increase in customs declarations. Jon Thompson, the most senior official at the UK’s customs department, has told parliament they could be recruited and trained within a few months.
But Britain’s preparations rely on the EU27 also being ready, and there are few signs that leading trade partners such as France, Germany and the Netherlands are implementing contingency plans, including recruiting and training the required extra customs inspectors.
At issue is the length of time needed for training in some member states, with several programmes taking years. It is already too late for some of the UK’s biggest trading partners to boost numbers by March 2019.
Candidates in Germany are required to follow a three year course, one of the longest such programmes in Europe, meaning a recruitment drive now would only start to bear fruit in late 2020.
Trainees in France follow a two year programme, so those who applied in this year’s recruitment round for the next course in 2018 will not enter service until mid-2020 at the earliest.
Sweden’s basic training lasts only one year. But a customs official confirmed that the department had “not heard that we will increase [the number of staff] due to Brexit”.
Belgium and the Netherlands have less rigid recruitment processes, with customs officers learning on the job. But a KPMG report said that the Netherlands needed to start recruiting immediately if it were to cope with an anticipated 1.5m extra entry declarations and 5m additional exit declarations after a hard Brexit.
One reason for the lack of action is uncertainty over the final shape of Brexit amid fractious negotiations between London and Brussels.
A spokesman for the FNV, the Dutch trade union federation, said the government “know they may need more people, but they don’t know how many until the final deal is clear”.
A Swedish official said: “I think we will first have to wait and see what the Brexit negotiations lead to.”
UK overtures on the need to prepare for a hard Brexit have fallen on deaf ears in Brussels. In September, Philip Hammond, the UK chancellor, told the House of Lords that there had been limited communication on preparations for future customs arrangements.
“It has been limited because the view of many of our neighbours is that until sufficient progress [in negotiations] has been declared, they are not authorised to engage with us on post-exit planning and arrangements,” he said.
An EU official acknowledged that a shortage of customs officers with expertise in third-country trade was a looming post-Brexit problem. “It is clear there will be practical consequences”, the official said. “We are only as good as we are trained”.