HOLYHEAD, Wales – Beneath the swirling gray clouds, Brian Anderson leaned out of the cab window of his truck to vent his frustration with the new documents that had already delayed his journey through Britain’s second-largest ferry port by half a day.
“It’s a nightmare,” Mr. Anderson said, explaining how he spent hours waiting at a depot 250 miles for export documents needed for Brexit. The delay meant he arrived in Holyhead, Wales, too late for the ferry he planned to take to Dublin and the next.
Fears of headaches and bureaucracy stemming from the introduction of the new rules governing Britain’s trade with the European Union, which took effect on 1 January, have led to dire predictions of a prevailing difficulty in British ports.
But so far the opposite has happened. In addition to resilient souls like Mr. Anderson, truck drivers are increasingly avoiding ports like Holyhead. They fear the paperwork mountains that are now required for travel, which last month included little more than ferry rides in one country and beyond in another.
On Thursday, only a few dozen other trucks waited for the same ferry as Mr. Anderson in a large but almost empty parking lot on the port side. Holyhead is working at half its normal capacity and staff are at large.
“It’s too much of a hassle to get through,” Mr Anderson said.
After months of uncertainty and tense negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has finally struck a trade deal with the European Union on Christmas Eve. So when Britain left the European single market and customs union on January 1st, it avoided the chaos observed during a rehearsal closure of the border by French authorities in December.
And yet the old system, which allowed travel without friction to and from European countries, is over. Despite claims by supporters that Brexit will cut red tape, companies have to make millions of customs declarations, as well as new documentation such as food health certificates and proofs of origin for a wide variety of goods. Consignments of mixed goods – such as those carried by Mr Anderson – can mean a number of driver’s documents to cover everything transported.
Across the UK, the impact of the rules surprised traders, causing a chain reaction that threatened some jobs and livelihoods.
Outraged by the costly delays, Scottish shell exporters blocked parliament in London in protest. A truckload of chips destined for a supermarket in Northern Ireland was detained for two days while the truck company tried to prove the origin of the potatoes with which they were made, according to a British MP. And more than 600 truck drivers have been fined for violating a congestion-preventing rule that requires them to have permission to approach Britain’s busiest port, Dover in Kent.
Under the new rules, truck drivers must register their shipments with authorities before reaching ports. Relatively few arrive without documents – only 7 percent in Holyhead, according to the port.
But this is because many have stayed elsewhere waiting for documents.
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 European Union, and continental Europe.
The fastest route for trucks is usually by ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, then east to Dover on the English coast and from there a short ferry ride to Calais in France.
Prior to the Brexit change, this trip across the land bridge was cheap and reliable, required almost no paperwork, and allowed trucks to leave loads on the road.
But this route is hampered by heavy bureaucracy, and many companies choose direct services between Ireland and France to stay within the European Union.
Whether this reflects dental problems or a fundamental change is unclear, and the changes have been welcomed in some neighborhoods.
Some environmentalists hope the decline in trade will continue and reduce the number of trucks crossing the UK.
Port operators expected a drop in trade as companies emptied the stocks they had built in December in the absence of a trade deal. The pandemic has also affected trade and tourism, just as companies are adapting to fill out Brexit-era forms.
But there are fears that a strike in ports like Holyhead could have lasting consequences.
“Very loud alarm bells are ringing,” Rune-up Iorwert, a member of the Welsh Sened or Parliament, told Plaid Cymru, a party that defends Wales’ independence.
“It is clear that trade is declining significantly through the port,” he said. “I hope this is a temporary phenomenon, but I am afraid that new trade patterns are being established here and I am worried about jobs. The lower the traffic through the port, the less people have to work at the port. “
Virginia Crosby, an MP from Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party, said she expected “That the fluctuations in transport patterns we are currently seeing will be short-lived,” citing the advantages of the “land bridge” route through England.
Others are more skeptical, noting that eight ferry services from Holyhead to Dublin have already been canceled, while those between Ireland and France have been increased.
“Given the choice, I think a lot of that traffic has gone to direct routes,” said William Calderbank, Holyhead’s port operations manager who manages Stena Line, adding that although he expects a lot of business to return, some of will not.
In addition to Holyhead’s problems, it is also losing business to ports in Scotland and Northern England that offer routes to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, which usually require less bureaucracy.
Now it makes no sense to send goods destined for Northern Ireland via Holyhead and then by truck to the north via Ireland – a previously popular route.
And while companies need to do better at filling out paperwork, they face additional changes in the future. The British government is gradually introducing its own rules after Brexit, waving most imports.
But from July he will exercise full control, as the Irish and French are doing now.
“We are only in phase 1 of Brexit, we have another one coming in July,” Mr Calderbank said.
This will increase the burden on companies that are already facing complex regulations.
Andrew Kinsella, managing director of Holyhead-based transport company Gwynedd Shipping, describes how a shipment was kept in Ireland for seven hours while officials questioned whether it should be certified as a dairy product because of the milk contained in the chocolate cookie chips.
Holyhead is “a ghost town,” he said. “You don’t see the normal constant 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 afternoon at the spot where he arrived at 6 a.m. to wait for permission to pick up cargo at the port.
He had no idea when the text message would come, authorizing him to move, but he knew that the delay had already disrupted his schedule the next day.
“The only way I can explain it is to say that, above all, it went freely, no documents were expected; but I was detained for five hours in Kent last Friday, he said.
“We’re all stuck – one of our boys was here for four days in early January,” Mr Lucas said. “It’s awful, absolutely awful,” he added, “and I see it only getting worse before it gets better.”