Europe News

There's a coastal town in England where Brexit threatens to cause some major disruption 

KENT, UNITED KINGDOM. MAY 2018. Aerial Photograph of the Port Of Dover on the Kent coastline, 21 miles from Calais, France. Aerial photograph by David Goddard
David Goddard | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Key Points
  • Dover is a crucial point of entry for billions of goods coming from the European Union.
  • But, as the U.K. prepares to leave the European Union, Dover could change dramatically.
  • Data from the Port of Dover show that an extra two minutes to check each lorry could create lines of over 17 miles at the border.
Does Brexit mean it's over for the Port of Dover?

With its famous white cliffs in the southeast of the U.K., Dover is more than just a regular coastal town; it is a crucial point of entry for billions of goods coming from the European Union.

Every day, an average of 10,000 lorries pass through the Port of Dover and are typically processed within two minutes. But, as the U.K. prepares to leave the European Union, this process could change dramatically.

Alex Veitch, the head of global policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), told CNBC: "These trucks can contain all kinds of stuff that needs to move quickly; that can be fresh food coming both ways, it can be pharmaceutical products, medicines, goods that decay quickly over time."

Lorries queue up at the port of Dover. Dover handles up to £122 billion ($172 billion, 140 billion euros) of trade annually, with trucks currently processed in two minutes. 

Veitch said that a lot of mail is transported through the English Channel and e-commerce is also heavily reliant on the route. Data from the Port of Dover show that an extra two minutes to check each lorry could create lines of more than 27 kilometers (over 17 miles) at the border — compared to no waiting times currently.

"The only checks that are done are passport checks, so at the moment, if you are a French driver, driving across the U.K., your passport is checked in Calais, when you get to Dover you just drive off," Veitch explained, adding that after Brexit "there could some fairly significant custom checks."

What's the issue?

The U.K. is due to leave the EU next March, meaning its close-knit trading relationship with the bloc could change. It has agreed on a transition period until 2020, but this is conditional on an agreement over their future relationship — something that negotiators have so far not managed.

In fact, the U.K. government and the EU have stepped up preparations in case they do not reach an agreement. Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said in early August that the risk of a no-deal Brexit is "uncomfortably high."

A potential abrupt break-up in the relationship between the EU and the U.K. could have large consequences, especially for Dover. But Craig Mackinlay, a Conservative party politician, who is also a member of the parliament committee examining the Brexit process, isn't concerned.

A mural by street artist Banksy depicting a European Union (EU) flag being chiseled by a workman covers the side of a building in Dover, U.K., on Friday, Sep. 22, 2017. 
Luke MacGregor | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"I am increasingly thinking that it's going to be a no deal Brexit and I have got no fears of that, no fears of that at all," he told CNBC. The local politician believes there wouldn't be changes in Dover to check European goods, because the standards of these products would not change overnight.

However, Veitch from the FTA explained that "if the global trade community sees Britain essentially refusing to do some of the basic, rudimentary checks on goods coming from the EU, they will see that as potentially discriminatory about global trade."

He added that the biggest risk of the U.K. crashing out of the EU is that fewer lorries will be allowed to enter the bloc with British goods.

"The EU has erected around itself a border for the number of trucks that are allowed to enter the EU every year from non-EU countries … There is a huge risk that if there isn't a deal on this permits system … there may be not enough individual truck passports for British companies to use to take goods across the border," he told CNBC.

What would change?

The U.K.'s current membership of the EU means that people and goods can easily flow across the English Channel. But if that membership ceases, the lorries arriving at the port would have to be checked by the U.K. authorities more thoroughly.

According to a report from Dover District Council in late July, which assessed the impact of Brexit in the region, current customs checks on imports from outside the EU can take between five and 45 minutes per vehicle. If European goods start taking a similar time, then imports could be compromised. Thus, supermarkets may have trouble restocking shelves, which could even lead to price spikes in some scenarios.

For the local area, a no-deal Brexit would require further infrastructure spending.

The current transport links are "insufficient to respond to (the) changing border arrangements," the report from the Dover District Council said. Without changes to the current infrastructure, lorries would have to queue on the local freeway (called the M20) until the authorities process them — the wait could cost more than £250 million ($319 million) to the region daily.

"I think that nobody knows what a no-deal means," Keith Morris, the leader of Dover District Council, told CNBC over the phone.

Lorries queue up at the port of Dover on the south coast of England.

He said that in terms of infrastructure, both the port and the rail tunnel to France would have to build new facilities, which requires time and money. He also mentioned that the local authority would have to hire more people and veterinarians to do the border checks.

The Dover District Council said in the same report that at this stage it cannot calculate how many more people it would have to hire, but probably more than 50 staff members and more than nine vets.

Morris has been at the forefront of local preparations for life after Brexit. He told CNBC that he doesn't really care if the U.K. opts for a closer relationship with the EU or for a total break-up. "As the district council, we have no say in Brexit negotiations, but I need to make sure that on Brexit day, my residents can go to work," he noted.

A divided region, a divided country

Walking around the small town of Dover, it's clear that local residents remain divided about the broader issue of Brexit — though it's been more than two years since the referendum.

"It's all up in the air. We don't know what's happening. The uncertainty worries us," a couple of retirees told CNBC as they walked their two dogs along the Marine Parade.

But the uncertainty doesn't seem to worry other people in Dover. A man in his forties, walking with his two sons, told CNBC: "I don't really care what's going to happen and what's going on. I'm happy that we are leaving the EU, that we are walking towards that."

An 82-year-old man, a former civil engineer in London, complained that many European citizens are taking advantage of the national health system and other benefits.

But some believe leaving the EU is the wrong option. "It breaks my heart that we are leaving. We belong to Europe, to the international community. My partner is Dutch and the uncertainty for us is if he will be able to come here and live with me," a female worker at the heritage site Dover Castle told CNBC.

Another Dover resident said: "Brexit…well no one knows. No one knows, it's a mess and it will probably mean Dover is going to be worse, no matter what happens…(Brexit) hasn't been thought through."

Nonetheless, Brexit negotiations are still ongoing and although time is running short ahead of March's deadline, both sides of the negotiating table have iterated that they are committed to a deal.

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