LONDON – Loaded with tons of live crabs, lobsters and shrimp, trucks heading south from the Scottish town of Oban had to reach their destination in Spain within 72 hours to make sure the cargo would survive the journey.
But as Britain operates with new post-Brexit trading rules, the journey, which used to be routine, is now a high-stakes gamble for exporter Paul Knight, managing director of PDK Shellfish.
“It’s like roulette,” Mr Knight said as he waved two giant trucks, adding that although he had spent tens of thousands of pounds on Brexit preparations, he remained appalled that detentions in French ports could lead to much from his shipment they perish.
“I’m exhausted, the pressure is so strong – it’s like being on the edge of a knife,” he added.
Since Britain completed the final stage of Brexit on 1 January and left the European Union’s single market and customs union, the world has changed for British exporters on the continent, and not in a good way.
Despite a trade deal between Britain and the European Union on Christmas Eve, promises once made by Brexit fighters that leaving the bloc would free companies from unnecessary bureaucracy now sound like a sinister joke. Shipments that used to travel with minimal noise now need voluminous documents, including customs declarations and, for food, health certificates.
Some British companies have stopped selling in continental Europe and even in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, although it now has a special customs status due to its land border with Ireland, which is a member of the European Union.
Complications pose a particular threat to Scottish seafood exporters, many of whom rely on the European market because they believe there is no such demand at home.
Before sending a truck with live crabs, Colin Anderson and three colleagues spent an entire day filling out the new paperwork. Even that made him struggle to secure one last document needed to move more than three tonnes of crabs to the Netherlands.
“We thought we were on top, but we still don’t have all the documentation,” said Mr. Anderson, managing director of The Crab Company (Scotland), based in Peterhead, as he discussed which route to choose for his shipment.
Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of the Scottish Seafood Association, a trade organization, said the new system was a “bureaucracy”. There are, he added, “so many certificates are required and if they are not all 100 percent aligned, even if it is an official error, the system rejects it.”
For companies already ravaged by the coronavirus and a collapse in hotel demand, the arrival of new trade rules came as a shoot.
In a video posted on Twitter, Lochfyne Langoustines and Lochfyne Seafarms said their stocks remained in ports, that exports to mainland Europe had become impossible and that the company could be forced to leave its business.
“Welcome to the modern world of Brexit and the mess it brings,” it said. “It’s amazing that we’re in this situation.”
Victoria Lee-Pearson, sales director of John Ross Jr., an Aberdeen-based smoked salmon producer, said whole loads of trucks had been rejected by French customs, apparently without explanation.
“It seems that our government has thrown us into the cold waters of the Atlantic without a life jacket,” she wrote in a letter to the government.
Donna Fordyce, CEO of Seafood Scotland, another trading group, said in a statement that the changes unleashed layer-by-layer administrative problems leading to delays, border failures and confusion.
“These companies don’t transport toilet rolls or gadgets,” Ms Fordyce said. “They export the highest quality perishable seafood, which has a limited window to reach the peak market.”
Mr Buchan of the Scottish Seafood Association said that customers refused certain shipments and that products that had passed sometimes lost value due to the added travel time.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the death of some companies,” Mr Buchan said. “Some lose tens of thousands of pounds, and in some cases hundreds of thousands.”
Instead of minimal bureaucracy, fish exports to France are now a 25-step process. In addition to customs declarations, each consignment of fish and seafood needs a health certificate after inspection.
At ports, traffic still flows freely through the Canal, but this is partly because the detentions are elsewhere.
Central to the relocation of Scottish fish to French markets is DFDS, a Danish logistics company that also operates ferry services. He organized inspections in Larkhall, near Glasgow, where seafood was sent before being taken to ports and then to the mainland.
But integration with government tax and customs systems is not smooth, forcing the company to implement slower, manual solutions. In Larkhall, there were delays in obtaining signed health certificates and other detentions from exporters who did not send the correct documents.
“Our people who have to enter the information are overwhelmed by delays,” said Torben Carlsen, CEO of DFDS.
Therefore, the company does not currently accept new orders from smaller companies, whose goods have to be grouped in one truck with very different documents.
Since each shipment needs proper certification, a problem with any of them can stop the entire cargo.
“We were very strict,” Mr Carlsen said. “So, I believe, everyone else is making sure that if you don’t have your documents, you won’t be able to enter the ports. Because if you do that and you can’t move, then you risk much bigger operational problems and supply chain problems. “
In terms of additional costs, the Scottish Government estimates that new border delays, including new customs formalities, are expected to amount to £ 7 billion, about $ 9.5 billion a year for British businesses.
Many Scottish exporters feel resentful that while the British have decided to drive through many European trucks for several months as the distortions are worked out by the system, France is introducing the new day 1 rules.
They want the government to negotiate concessions with the French authorities, and as opinion polls show majority support for Scottish independence, the problems of the maritime industry are likely to contribute to London’s resentment. The majority of Scots who voted in the Brexit referendum in 2016 wanted to stay in the European Union, but they were fewer than the British and Welsh voters.
While the system may become more efficient in the coming months as teething problems smooth out, it is unlikely to become significantly less bureaucratic now that Britain has left the customs union and the European Union’s single market.
This inevitably means that millions more forms are required of exporters, although the government – which has called on companies to expand their horizons and seek markets outside Europe – says it has been warning them for months to prepare for post-Brexit trading conditions.
But for Mr Knight of Oban, no preparation can secure the possibility of his perishable product being stuck in a queue for hours behind other vehicles pending inspection on arrival in a French port.
French authorities 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 low – a situation that is bound to change.
With little market for his premium shellfish in the UK, Mr Knight said the only way to keep his company afloat is to continue betting on transnational export trade, even if the odds are against it.
“At some point we will touch the wrong key on the computer or there will be a wrong date in a document,” he said. “It’s not a question of whether they’ll catch me, but when.”