Charlie Elphicke is MP for Dover and Deal.
Over a year ago, Britain voted to leave the European Union. In little over 18 months we will be off. The clock is now ticking. It is vital that we are ready on day one for every eventuality. The most important preparations of all will be for international trade at our ports – especially the Channel Ports of Dover and the Channel Tunnel that account for 40 per cent of all our trade with the EU.
Last summer, we had a taster of what will come if we are not ready. We saw miles of traffic queueing back from the Channel Ports. 250,000 people were caught up in the gridlock. Families with young children and the elderly were trapped in sweltering heat with no food, water or toilet facilities. In the summer of 2015, gridlock struck again with queues of 4,600 lorries stretching back 30 miles. Each time this happens, it costs the UK economy £1 billion.
Fears have been raised that tailbacks will reoccur if Britain has “no deal” with the EU by March 2019. There are dire warnings of traffic jams along the M25 as far back as Stansted airport. Concerns have been raised that customs delays will choke UK trade. Predictions have been made that the Northern Powerhouse will cease to whir if goods are stuck at Dover, and that the Midlands Engine will conk out if it cannot get the components it needs through the Tunnel. Recent experience shows that this is not scaremongering. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.
Working with business and industry experts on both sides of the English Channel, I have drawn up a detailed blueprint to keep EU trade flowing smoothly through UK ports to Europe. There is real enthusiasm and a strong commitment from business and industry to be ready on day one. The question is whether there is sufficient commitment and focus from Government ministries and civil servants.
To make it work does not require revolution. What is needed are things that have been required for a long time to be made unequivocal national priorities. Let’s start with roads. We wouldn’t have constant traffic trouble on the roads to the Channel Ports if the investment needed for decades had been made. Traffic has more than doubled while road capacity has remained the same. Small wonder there are increasingly frequent problems. Yet, even now, the Department for Transport is more interested in HS2 and Crossrail which will take decades than cross-channel trade which is needed in the next year. And we are a decade on from the Eddington Report that called for investment in port roads to be a priority. For the Channel Ports, infrastructure like lorry parks off the M20 must be built and ready. The M20 needs to be upgraded, the A2 dualled and the Lower Thames Crossing taken forward with a sense of urgency.
We must invest in port infrastructure, too. Over the past few years, we have handed over tens of millions to strengthen Calais. But a strong border is made of two parts. So as we leave the EU we should put Britain, and Britain’s ports, first. Because our ports and borders will be more important than ever when we leave.
Let’s plan ahead for customs systems too. When it comes to customs and tariffs after Brexit, many people are worrying about the wrong thing. We manage very well with the rest of the world under WTO rules. So we know what customs systems can and will work post Brexit. What the worry should be is whether enough is being done to get the planned new “CDS” customs system installed in time. As the new system is planned for early 2019, it will be a close-run thing. The obvious thing is to speed up the introduction of the new system and run it alongside the existing one that is due for replacement.
It’s important to understand that for customs clearances the border is a tax point, not a search point. The system can operate as a self-assessment system like VAT. So there need not be long delays at the border as long as systems are properly organised and the mutual recognition of foodstuffs continues.
There should be one Government at the border to ensure order. There are over 30 ministries, quangos and agencies with border responsibilities. It’s now time to take action to streamline Government at the border.
We may have rejected being part of an ever-expanding European project. Yet we have not ditched our long-standing alliance with France. We know first-hand at Dover the value of our nations working together to fight traffickers, criminals and terrorists. We should seek a new Entente Cordiale. Starting with a New Le Touquet Treaty to extend the existing treaty from covering people to cover customs and goods too.
Trade continuing to flow freely through our ports is a key national priority that Government must urgently grasp and act upon. Especially the Channel Ports. For gridlock at the Channel Ports will gridlock the entire UK economy. We have less than 600 days to get it right.