Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
Almost everything at the Port of Rotterdam is done on an enormous scale. Stretching over 40km – about the same distance as the ferry route between Dover and Calais – the massive complex handles more than 460 million tonnes of cargo a year.
This is twice as much as its nearest European rival (Antwerp) and almost eight times more than Britain’s biggest hub (Grimsby/Immingham).
Much of the €60 billion worth of annual bilateral trade between the UK and the Netherlands passes through the port, as does an estimated €40 billion worth of exports to Britain from third countries.
But on my recent visit, it was not the state-of-the-art infrastructure or the extensive use of new technology which impressed me most. It was the attitude of managers towards Brexit.
There is no doubt Rotterdam will be hugely affected by our departure from the European Union, which will require significant changes to the way the port operates. But while many British commentators and journalists predict chaos – or even “Armageddon” – managers in Rotterdam are keeping calm and getting on with the job.
A port the size of Rotterdam faces constant challenges and, for its staff, throwing up your hands in despair is not an option. So time and again when I asked about Brexit during my visit the answer boiled down to: “It’s a shock, but it’s not the worst thing to happen” and “We’ll deal with it.”
On Tuesday senior officials from Calais and Zeebrugge delivered a similar message to the Treasury Select Committee. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time discussing Brexit in Brussels, it is difficult to over-emphasise how refreshing that attitude is.
Of course behind this simple phrase lies a huge amount of planning, analysis and hard work.
The first batch of 150 new Dutch customs officers will soon complete their training while a second group is being recruited. Plans have been drawn up and sites identified at Rotterdam for new customs inspections posts, lorry parks, and temperature-controlled warehouses for flowers, fruit, and vegetables. IT systems are being made ready for a potential 33 per cent increase in export declarations.
In contrast to this ‘can do’ approach, EU negotiators are continuing with their ‘can’t do’ response when presented with UK proposals to overcome the Irish border issue and shape the wider post-Brexit relationship.
This situation is due in part to events currently being played out at Westminster. The EU would prefer the UK to remain inside both the customs union and single market, an outcome which would see us continuing to pay into the budget, minimise the economic impact on other Member States, and avoid the risk of the UK becoming a successful competitor.
Consequently, so long as the British Government is being pressed to raise the white flag by those in the Lords and Labour Party, as well as by a small minority of Conservatives, who want the UK to get the worst possible deal in the hope that Brexit can be stopped, the EU is understandably going to continue making any alternative scenario as difficult as possible.
Only when this option is definitely off the table will there be any incentive for EU negotiators to engage constructively, and next week’s Commons vote on the Lords’ 15 amendments to the Withdrawal Bill is being seen on this side of the Channel as an important moment.
Whatever MPs decide on Tuesday and Wednesday, I do not expect key decisions to be made at the European Council meeting on 28/29 June, despite pressure for more substantive progress from Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach amongst others. Just as the timetable for the end of the first phase slipped from October to December last year, many people I speak to are now resigned to the important Brexit business being done when EU leaders meet again in October.
Back at the Port of Rotterdam, I have no doubt that the pragmatic staff there will continue planning ahead for whatever Brexit throws at them. Meanwhile, 150 kilometres down the road in Brussels, the political manoeuvring and brinkmanship continues.