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Brexit stockpiling triggers cross-Channel freight crunch

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A surge of stockpiling by UK companies before the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1 has triggered road congestion and costly delays in northern France and southern England as lorries queue for cross-Channel ferries and the tunnel on one of the world’s busiest freight routes. 

“We had delays of up to seven or eight hours at the end of last week on the French side,” said Loic Chavaroche, chief Brexit officer of logistics group ATS. “We are at the end of Brexit, but at the beginning of the difficulties of crossing the Channel.” 

The sharp rise in truck traffic to the UK across the Channel — exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on international freight flows — reflects a drive by UK businesses to stockpile imported products and raw materials in case of border delays caused by the new trade regime that will apply in the new year when the transition period ends and the UK finally leaves the single market. 

Customs, security and health documents will be required for goods flowing from the UK to the EU regardless of whether the two sides reach a last-minute agreement on a zero-tariff trading arrangement for the future. On Wednesday European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs that there was now a path to a deal, albeit a narrow one.

“There’s a strong rise in traffic flows, up 30-50 per cent on some days compared to last year, depending on the day,” said Sébastien Rivera of the National Road Transport Federation in the Calais region. “The main explanation is that the UK is stocking up in anticipation.

“We reckon that at the start of January, given this stockpiling, there will be a fall in volumes — not a bad thing given the extra administrative and customs procedures.” 

Nearly half of the members of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation said an increase in stockpiling was having a significant impact on their business in the third quarter, said FDF chief executive Ian Wright.

“Our members are stockpiling finished goods near the point of sale and ingredients near the point of manufacture,” he said. “The reason they’re stockpiling is because they fear serious disruption to supplies in the case of a no-deal Brexit, which would have implications for product availability and choice. Prices may rise too but we will not run out of food.”

Across the UK companies like Securon, a seatbelt manufacturer in Amersham, have been stockpiling supplies in case of a no deal Brexit © Charlie Bibby/FT

MakeUK, the manufacturers’ group, said its data show that 23 per cent of manufacturers have been stockpiling, though a further 25 per cent are not because the pandemic has made it unaffordable. Another 34 per cent do not see the need to stockpile, 9 per cent did it last year and do not want to do it again while 10 per cent reckon there will be a deal that eliminates the need for extra stocks.

Logistics companies say the strain has been building for several weeks on the busy routes by rail tunnel and ferry across the strait between Dover and Calais, which, according to Channel Tunnel operator Getlink, account for 90 per cent of truck-borne trade between the UK and the EU and 50 per cent of all trade in goods. 

On top of the usual pre-Christmas rush, the ports have had to handle supplies of personal protective equipment, medicines and now vaccines to deal with Covid-19 as well as shipments diverted from congested UK ports such as Felixstowe to Rotterdam which then need to be trans-shipped across the Channel. Honda stopped production at its Swindon plant last week when it ran out of imported components.

The Chemical Industries Association said the industry was facing “increased difficulty” in both importing and exporting chemicals because of global pressures which were hampering efforts to stockpile ahead of January 1. “There is already a 16-day wait on securing a berth on critical exports,” said a spokesperson, adding that SMEs facing cash flow issues as a result of Covid-19 were struggling to build stockpiles.

Getlink, which runs the Channel Tunnel and its truck-carrying trains, said freight traffic was well above its forecasts for the season and November volumes were 11 per cent higher than last year. “We are using all the additional [truck-parking] capacity we built up over the past couple of years,” said Getlink’s John Keefe.

Port authorities in Dover and Calais say the sea crossing is constrained at present because ferry companies have cut the number of ferries they allocate to the route, given the lack of tourist cars and passengers because of the latest phase of the pandemic.

Lorry numbers at Dover have neared a 2017 record in the past week © Toby Melville/Reuters

Tim Reardon, head of EU exit for the Port of Dover said lorry numbers last week were 24 per cent above the same week last year and also above 2018 levels, with about 10,000 passing through Dover on Wednesday and Thursday, close to the record 10,500 of November 2017. 

“We think there are a number of factors at play — November is always the busiest month being pre-Christmas — but this year the general consensus is that the numbers are a combination of pre-Brexit stockpiling and a natural bounceback from a slow summer caused by coronavirus,” he said.

After January, even if congestion eases in the first few weeks, the cost of transport across the Channel is expected to rise because of the increased complexity and form-filling involved in crossing between two markets with different regulations. France has hired hundreds of additional customs officers and veterinary experts for its Channel ports and built holding areas for trucks delayed by incorrect paperwork. 

Mr Chavaroche of ATS estimated that costs could rise by as much as 25 per cent because of new customs clearance procedures, delays, and a possible shortage of drivers, given that many are east Europeans who will not automatically be allowed to work in the UK after it has left the EU and the single market.



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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise

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France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.

Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.

The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.

Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.

Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.

“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.

French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.

The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.

Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.

Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.

“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”

UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.

A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.



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Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies

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The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.

They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.

British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.

This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.

The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.

The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).

This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.

The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.

The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.

Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.

All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.

Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.



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