HOLYHEAD, Wales – Under swirling gray clouds, Bryan Anderson leaned out of the truck’s cab window to vent his frustration over the new paperwork that had already delayed his journey through Britain’s second-largest ferry port by half a day.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Mr. Anderson and explained how he spent hours waiting for a depot 250 miles away on export documents required due to Brexit. The delay meant he reached Holyhead in Wales too late for the ferry he planned to take to Dublin, and for the next one as well.
Fears of inconvenience and bureaucracy stemming from the introduction of the new rules governing Britain’s trade with the European Union, which entered into force on 1 January, led to gloomy predictions of overwhelming gravel locks in British ports.
But so far the opposite has happened. Apart from hardy souls like Mr. Anderson is increasingly avoiding truck drivers in ports like Holyhead. They are afraid of the mountains of paperwork now required for travel, which last month involved little more than driving on to a ferry in one country and out of it in another.
On Thursday, only a few dozen other trucks stood waiting for the same ferry as Mr. Anderson in a large but almost empty parking lot by the harbor. Holyhead operates at half its normal capacity and staff are placed in the furrow.
“It’s too much trouble to go through,” said Mr. Anderson.
After months of uncertainty and tense negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally signed a trade agreement with the European Union on Christmas Eve. So when Britain left Europe’s single market and customs union on 1 January, it avoided the chaos seen during a French official’s closure at the border closure in December.
Yet the old system that allowed frictionless travel to and from European nations is over. Despite claims by its supporters that Brexit would reduce bureaucracy, companies have to produce millions of customs declarations as well as new evidence such as health certificates for food and proof of origin for a wide range of goods. Shipments of mixed goods – like the packages that Anderson carried – can mean an abundance of paperwork for drivers to cover everything that is carried.
Across the UK, the impact of the rules has taken traders by surprise and triggered a chain reaction that has threatened some jobs and livelihoods.
Angry at costly delays, Scottish shellfish exporters blocked Parliament in London in protest. A truckload of chips destined for a supermarket in Northern Ireland was detained for two days as the trucking company tried to prove the origin of the potatoes they were made with, according to a British lawmaker. And more than 600 truck drivers have been fined for breaking a congestion-designed rule that requires them to be allowed to approach Britain’s busiest port, Dover, Kent.
Under the new rules, truck drivers must log their shipments with the authorities before reaching ports. Relatively few arrive without paperwork – only 7 percent to Holyhead, according to the port.
But that is because many are stuck elsewhere and awaiting papers.
The new system has also raised questions about the future of one of Europe’s busiest trade routes between Ireland, which remains part of the EU and continental Europe.
The fastest route for trucks is generally via a ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, then east to Dover on the coast of England and from there a short ferry ride to Calais in France.
Before the Brexit changes, travel via the “land bridge” was cheap and reliable, requiring almost no paperwork and allowing trucks to drop off cargo along the way.
But this route has been blocked by a scrub of bureaucracy, and many companies are opting for direct services between Ireland and France in order to remain within the European Union.
Whether this reflects dental problems or a fundamental shift is unclear, and the changes have been welcomed for some quarters.
Some environmental campaigns are hoping that the decline in trade will be permanent and reduce the number of lorries crossing the UK.
Port operators had expected a decline in trade as companies emptied stocks they had built in December if there was no trade agreement. The pandemic has also affected trade and tourism, and companies are adapting to the form filling in the Brexit era.
But there are fears that hits to ports like Holyhead could have lasting consequences.
“Very high alarm bells are ringing,” said Rhun ap Iorwerth, a member of the Welsh Senate or the parliament of Plaid Cymru, a party that advocates independence for Wales.
“It’s clear that trade is massively down through the port,” he said. “I hope this is a temporary phenomenon, but I fear that new trade patterns will be established here, and I am worried about jobs. The less traffic through the port, the less you need to work in the port. ”
Virginia Crosbie, a lawmaker with Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party, said she expected “That the fluctuations in transport patterns that we are currently seeing will be in the short term”, referring to the benefits of the “land bridge” route through England.
Others are more dubious, noting that eight ferry connections from Holyhead to Dublin have already been canceled, while those between Ireland and France have increased.
“Given the choice, I think much of that traffic has shifted to the direct routes,” said William Calderbank, port operations manager at Holyhead, which is operated by Stena Line, adding that while he expects many businesses to return, some of it will not.
To add to Holyhead’s problems, it is also losing business to ports in Scotland and the north of England, offering routes to Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, which generally requires less bureaucracy.
It now does not make much sense to send goods destined for Northern Ireland via Holyhead and then by truck north through Ireland – a popular route in the past.
And while companies need to get better at completing paperwork, they face further changes in the future. The British government is phasing in its own rules after Brexit and waving most imports through.
But from July it will apply full control as the Irish and French do now.
“We are only in phase 1 of Brexit, we have another coming in July,” said Mr. Calderbank.
This will increase the burden on companies already facing complex rules.
Andrew Kinsella, CEO of Gwynedd Shipping, a transport company headquartered in Holyhead, described how a shipment was held in Ireland for seven hours, while officials questioned whether it should be certified as a dairy product due to milk contained in cookies’ chocolate chips.
Holyhead “is a ghost town,” he said. “You do not see the normal steady flow of vehicles every day; you are lucky to see a handful of trucks when the ferries arrive. ”
At Road King, a Holyhead truck stop, another driver, Rob Lucas, was still parked in the middle of the afternoon at the place where he arrived at 6 p.m. 6 to await approval to take a cargo into port.
He had no idea when the text message that allowed him to move would arrive, but knew the delay had already ruined his next day’s schedule.
“The only way I can explain it is to say that everything used to run free, there was no waiting time for paperwork; but last Friday I was held up five hours in Kent, ”he said.
“We’re all in limbo – one of our boys was here for four days in early January,” Lucas said. “It’s awful, absolutely awful,” he added, and “I can only see it get worse before it gets better.”