LONDON – Loaded with tons of live crabs, lobsters and shrimp, the trucks heading south from the Scottish town of Oban had to reach their destination in Spain within 72 hours to be sure the cargo would survive the trip.
But with Britain applying new trade rules after Brexit, a journey that used to be routine is now a high stakes game for exporter Paul Knight, CEO of PDK Shellfish.
“It’s like roulette,” said Mr. Knight, while waving two giant trucks, adding that although he spent tens of thousands of pounds on Brexit preparations, he remained afraid that teams in French ports could get a large portion of his shipment to Disappear.
“I’m exhausted, the pressure is so intense – it’s like being on a knife edge,” he added.
Since Britain ended the last phase of Brexit on 1 January and left the European Union’s single market and customs union, the world has changed for British exporters to the continent and not in a good way.
Despite a trade deal signed by Britain and the EU on Christmas Eve, promises once made by Brexit campaigns that leaving the bloc would free companies from unnecessary bureaucracy now sound like a macabre joke. Shipments that previously moved with minimal agitation now need extensive paperwork including customs declarations and for food health certificates.
Some British companies have suspended sales to continental Europe and even to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, although it now has a special customs status due to the land border with Ireland, an EU member state.
The complications pose a particular threat to Scottish seafood exporters, many of whom depend on the European market because they say there is no similar demand at home.
Before Colin Anderson and three colleagues shipped a truck with live crabs, they devoted an entire day to completing the new paperwork. Even that made him struggle to secure one last document needed to move more than three tons of crab to Holland.
“We thought we were on top of it, but we still do not have all the documentation,” said Mr. Anderson, CEO of The Crab Company (Scotland) based in Peterhead, as he discussed which route to choose for his shipment.
Jimmy Buchan, executive director of the Scottish Seafood Association, a trade organization, said the new system had “bureaucracy gone crazy.” There are, he added, “so many certificates are required, and if they are not all 100 percent corrected, even if it is a typo, the system rejects it.”
For companies already squeezing out of coronavirus and a collapse in demand from the hospitality industry, the advent of new trade rules has come as a sucker punch.
In a video posted on Twitter, Lochfyne Langoustines and Lochfyne Seafarms said its stock was stuck in ports, that exports to mainland Europe had become impossible and that the company could be forced out of operation.
“Welcome to the modern world of Brexit and the mess it brings,” it said. “Unbelievable that we are in this position.”
Victoria Leigh-Pearson, sales director for John Ross Jr., a smoked salmon producer based in Aberdeen, said the entire truck load was rejected by French customs authorities, apparently without explanation.
“It feels like our own government has thrown us into the cold Atlantic waters without life jackets,” she wrote in a letter to the government.
Donna Fordyce, CEO of Seafood Scotland, another trading group, said in a statement that the changes have released layer upon layer of administrative problems, resulting in delays, border rejections and confusion.
“These companies do not carry toilet rolls or widgets,” Ms Fordyce said. “They export the highest quality perishable seafood, which has a limited window to enter the market in top form.”
Mr. Buchan from the Scottish Fisheries Association said customers rejected some shipments and that products that came through sometimes lost value due to the extra travel times.
“I would not be surprised if this would be the death knell for some companies,” said Mr. Buchan. “Some lose tens of thousands of pounds, and in some cases it runs into the hundreds of thousands.”
Instead of minimal bureaucracy, exporting fish to France is now a 25-step process. In addition to customs declarations, every consignment of seafood must have a health certification after inspection.
In the ports, traffic still moves freely across the canal, but this is partly because holdups are elsewhere.
Central to moving Scottish fish to the markets in France is DFDS, a Danish logistics company that also operates ferry routes. It has set up inspections in Larkhall near Glasgow, where seafood is shipped before being driven to ports and then to the continent.
But integration with state tax and customs systems has not been easy, forcing the company to implement slower, manual solutions. In Larkhall, there have been delays in getting health certificates signed, and other detentions from exporters who did not send the correct paperwork.
“Our employees who have to enter the information have been overwhelmed due to delays.” said Torben Carlsen, CEO of DFDS.
Therefore, the company does not currently accept new orders from smaller companies whose goods are to be grouped in a truck with many different papers.
Because each shipment needs the correct certification, a problem with one of them can stop the entire truck.
“We have been very strict,” Carlsen said. “And I think everyone else has to make sure that if you do not have your papers in place, you can not get into the ports. Because if you do, and you can not move, you risk much greater operational problems and supply chain problems. ”
As for the extra cost, the Scottish Government estimates that new delays at the border including new customs formalities are expected to amount to £ 7 billion, approx. $ 9.5 billion, annually for UK companies.
Many Scottish exporters feel dissatisfied that while the British decided to wave through many European trucks for months as the cracks were worked out of the system, France put the new rules in place from day 1.
They want the government to negotiate concessions with the French authorities, and with opinion polls showing majority support for Scottish independence, the problems of the fisheries sector are likely to contribute to anger over London. A majority of the Scots who voted in the Brexit referendum in 2016 would remain in the European Union, but they were below the number of English and Welsh voters.
While the system may become more effective in the coming months as tooth problems are leveled out, it is unlikely to become significantly less bureaucratic now that the UK has left the European Union’s customs union and internal market.
This inevitably means the need for millions more exporters, even though the government – which has called on companies to expand their horizons and look for non-European markets – says it has warned them for months to prepare for trading conditions after Brexit.
But for Mr. Knight, from Oban, can no preparation secure against the possibility that his very perishable product will be stuck in a row for hours behind other vehicles awaiting inspection on arrival at a French port.
French officials are trying their best, he said, and two of his trucks have done so successfully. But they traveled during the holiday season, when traffic was unusually light, a situation that is likely to change.
With little market for his premium seafood in the UK, Mr. Knight that the only way to keep his company was to continue playing with the cross-border export trade even though the odds were against him.
“At some point, we have to press the wrong key on the computer or some document will have the wrong date on it,” he said. “It’s not a question of if they want to catch me out, it’s when.”