The Dutch government is hiring nearly 1,000 customs officials. Britain’s health agency is mulling how to ensure medicine supplies. Ireland is preparing border inspections for food shipments and even racehorses.
Call it contingency planning. Call it preparedness. Just try not to call it panic.
As Prime Minister Theresa May struggles to navigate Britain’s divorce from the European Union, the disarray is amplifying the need for governments around the bloc to have backup plans for a variety of chaotic possibilities.
The European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, issued an urgent advisory on Thursday for countries in the region to accelerate preparations “at all levels and for all outcomes.” It warned that Britain’s withdrawal would have a significant impact on supply chains, trade, transportation and personnel. Getting ready immediately “is of paramount importance,” it said.
But countries that conduct a lot of trade with Europe’s second-largest economy face a particular challenge: How to manage the massive flow of TVs, car parts, drugs and every other product that cross their borders to get to and from Britain.
Many have been preparing for a nightmare scenario in which Britain fails to negotiate an orderly departure from the European Union, a process known as Brexit, while assuming that a rosier outcome will prevail. That would involve keeping Britain tied to European regulations and customs arrangements, allowing goods to continue traveling easily across borders and safeguarding critical supply chains and jobs.
But the process has spiraled into utter confusion as hard-core supporters of a clean break from the European Union revolt against a planby Mrs. May for a so-called soft Brexit.
On Tuesday, she barely averted a defeat in Parliament of her blueprint for such a break, casting doubt on whether the prime minister can negotiate an agreement acceptable to her government, let alone with the European Union, before Britain is to withdraw on March 29. Even if that deadline is extended, there is no guarantee things will end smoothly.
Britain’s neighbors are taking no chances.
In the Netherlands, one of Britain’s biggest European trading partners, officials are recruiting nearly 1,000 customs officials for Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest cargo port, as well as at airports, to prepare for a surge in post-Brexit bureaucracy.
The government had been hoping for an outcome along the lines presented by Mrs. May, which would let the Netherlands and other European countries keep moving goods across borders with only slightly more red tape than now.
A so-called hard Brexit, in which no such arrangement is made, would instead require strict new customs controls and a tangle of tariffs for each chocolate bar, computer or car part that passes through the Rotterdam port to and from Britain.
The Dutch are bracing for the worst.
“As far as we know, Brexit is happening,” said Erik Jeene, a spokesman for the Dutch finance ministry, which oversees spending for the customs authority. “Hard Brexit is still a possibility, so we are preparing.”
In addition to customs agents, the government is recruiting up to 90 veterinarians for animal and food inspection. New agents will have to have uniforms and other equipment. Warehouses to hold goods for inspection may be needed, adding to the nearly 35 million euro, or around $40 million, expense.
In the event of a hard Brexit, ships sailing to Rotterdam from Britain could no longer pass through a type of express lane for customs clearance. Instead, Mr. Jeene said, they would be diverted into a different lane reserved for vessels from so-called third countries, which are not part of the European Union and undergo more extensive inspections to ensure cargo meets strict regional standards.
“If we import apples from Germany, they can just cross the border,” Mr. Jeene said. “In a new situation for Britain, that wouldn’t be possible.” The customs inspection load could be enormous. “We’re talking about thousands of containers a day,” he said.
Other places that do big business with Britain are following suit. In Belgium, the government is hiring more agents for the sprawling port of Antwerp and weighing the need for scanners, sniffer dogs, weapons and drones to beef up post-Brexit customs surveillance. How much will depend on what form Brexit takes.
Even Britain isn’t sure how to prepare: The government estimates up to 5,000 new customs agents may be needed. But that would depend on the outcome of the negotiations.
With Mrs. May’s plan rapidly careening off course, a clear answer looks increasingly out of reach.
“It’s not evident, or not obvious, that the government of Britain has the majority for any form of Brexit, quite frankly,” the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said Wednesday.
As a result, he said, he was ordering Irish government agencies to immediately ramp up preparations for a “no deal” Brexit at the country’s ports and airports. These include adding 1,000 more customs agents and even inspection points for racehorses traveling to and from races in Britain.
As part of its contingency plans, Ireland is also considering whether to relocate part of the emergency oil stocks that it stores at British refineries back to Ireland or to other countries in the union, the Sunday Independent newspaper reported. A government spokesman said such stocks may be held only in European Union countries.
Brexit, even in its tidiest form, could create paralysis at the Channel Tunnel crossing between France and Britain. In the French city of Calais, the deputy mayor, Philippe Mignonet, has warned that Brexit could result in round-the-clock traffic jams, and an increased risk of migrants trying to smuggle themselves into waiting payloads.
France is accelerating the recruitment of up to 700 customs officers before Brexit. “The more we think the worst should be avoided, the more we think it’s not impossible it could eventually happen,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said last week.
On the British side, the government has floated converting a stretch of the M20 motorway in Kent, which runs to the coastal town of Dover, into a vast parking lot for trucks. If the country is no longer in the customs union, new delays in processing truck arrivals could cause a 17-mile line of traffic, according to the Dover port authority.
Companies worried about supply chain disruptions are scrambling to cope. The European aerospace giant Airbus employs over 14,000 people in Britain making massive wings for its planes. Some parts must go back and forth between Britain and the European Union before final assembly. So any transport holdup could wreak havoc with production.
Tom Enders, the company’s chief executive, who threatened last month to leave Britain unless there was more clarity on Brexit, said on Wednesday that he was activating Brexit “contingency plans” after Mrs. May’s proposal appeared to be “unraveling.” Airbus’s Plan B involves creating a stock of inventory so that the company can continue manufacturing after Britain leaves the bloc, he said.
Other firms have been stockpiling goods to prepare for an Armageddon scenario. Warehouse space in Britain has been filling up at record rates as companies from electronics producers to appliance makers stock inventories to meet demand in case they cannot get supplies quickly, according to KPMG, the professional services firm.
Even Britain’s own Department of Health is examining how to ensure continuity in the supply chain for medicines, vaccines, radioisotope products and medical devices under different Brexit outcomes — including if the country comes crashing out, Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the National Health Service, told a parliamentary committee.
“Nobody,” Mr. Stevens said, “is suggesting that this is a desirable situation in which to find ourselves.”
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