With Brexit now just fifteen months away, the challenges of reaching a workable trade deal with the EU and the pressing need to develop a practical UK customs operation which can cope with the need to process thousands of additional customs declarations finally appear to have been recognised.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) has been focused on highlighting the importance of prioritising customs arrangements and how they can be streamlined to achieve frictionless trade to all those involved in the Brexit negotiations, sharing the association’s expertise and a wealth of knowledge from its members with politicians and civil servants in the UK and in Brussels.

The British government document outlining its ambitions for a post-Brexit customs arrangement set out two broad approaches; either a highly streamlined customs system which uses current and new working practices to keep processes as simple as possible, or a customs ‘partnership’ which would involve the UK mirroring the EU’s import requirements and processes.   However, there has been little progress in discussing either of these options, or any others, as the EU insists the UK must reach a financial deal first before moving on to the details of a future trade deal.

Despite this impasse, FTA staff have continued to stress the importance of reaching a trade deal quickly and the risks for both sides of failing to do so.  The organisation has also highlighted the opportunities which exist to maintain customs arrangements at the UK’s ports which are as close to the status quo as possible

FTA’s Deputy Chief Executive James Hookam believes that now is the time for trade to take centre stage:

The government has accepted that HMRC will need to recruit between three and five thousand additional staff to implement any new customs operation and we welcome the work being done to ensure the Customs Declaration System is ready for Brexit, but much more needs to be decided about the arrangements and the contingency plans required to prepare adequately for all the possible outcomes of the negotiations. As a multimodal organisation, with more than 16,000 members, FTA has a unique perspective on the Brexit issues faced by companies tasked with moving goods in and out of the UK.  Our members know what’s at risk here and that’s why we’re playing such an active role in these negotiations and putting pressure on the government to get on the front foot.

FTA believes the best long-term customs solution would be a free trade deal with the EU, but with such an agreement likely to take several years to reach, it has proposed a five-year transition period made-up of a negotiation period, followed by a minimum of two years for implementation.

FTA, which has more than 16,000 member companies, has published a comprehensive ten-step paper outlining the crucial steps it believes are needed to ensure the smooth continuation of trading conditions during the implementation period.   Called “Ten Ways to Make Customs Borders Work after Brexit”, the document outlines practical, achievable proposals for steps that government and industry can take to reduce delays at UK–EU borders once Britain leaves.

James Hookham says that now, the priority for FTA members is to gain a full understanding of what will be required of them to prepare for the new trading environment as well as adequate time to put necessary measures into practice:   

Whatever the final border and customs arrangements that are reached, UK businesses can’t plough millions of pounds into trying to keep up with a series of interim arrangements.  They need solid plans, with a clear timetable for implementation and plenty of time to adapt.  Our ten measures provide an authoritative starting-point for progress to be made in developing a new customs system, within a workable timeframe.  We believe the government should be considering them now, to have any prospect of being adequately prepared for a post-Brexit trading environment.

FTA is proposing that each of the measures should be developed and incorporated into any future UK-EU trade agreement and if a transition period is not agreed, then some could be negotiated relatively quickly, in advance of a full trade deal.  The ten individual measures are:

  • No customs paperwork to be presented at the border
  • Documentation: with registered exporters and one-stop services
  • Measures to ensure traders have EORI numbers
  • A waiver for safety and security declarations
  • A negotiated solution for ro-ro ports
  • A mutual recognition agreement for AEO security
  • Joining the Common Transit Convention, with TIR as a backup
  • The possibility of juxtaposed controls with France
  • The retention of Low Value Consignment Relief
  • Full resourcing and better coordination of Border agencies

As James Hookham reiterates, the need for action is growing more pressing by the day and FTA members are only too aware of the risks of failing to get preparations right:

If practical measures aren’t agreed and implemented swiftly, the prospect of shelf shortages and large queues at ports and airports is a very real one.  The UK and European logistics industries are desperate to avoid this situation at all costs. That’s why FTA has prepared this paper, to restate the gravity of these issues and highlight some of the key challenges must be addressed. As a sector, we are ready to take things forwards – we just need the roadmap to do so.

James Hookham, Deputy Chief Executive, FTA