LONDON — At the ports and terminals on Britain’s southeast coast, a new era began Friday morning without much fuss. Ferries and trains that carry goods to France from Dover and Folkestone were running on time, and drivers snaked their trucks into the port unencumbered by congestion.
To all appearances, little may have changed on Jan. 1, the country’s first day outside the European Union’s single market and customs union. It was, after all, a public holiday and not much business was taking place.
But for the first time in over 25 years, goods traveling between Britain and the European Union will no longer move freely and customs checks will be enforced for goods entering the bloc.
A trade deal, signed into law in Britain in the early hours of Dec. 31, less than 24 hours before it took effect, means the country and the European Union will trade goods without tariffs. Businesses, however, will still face significant changes that they had been urged to prepare for even during the lockdowns, closures and other social restrictions the government has enforced to contain a surging pandemic.
The changes are bound to bring “bumpy moments,” a top cabinet minister predicted this week. The government expects new customs paperwork alone to cost British businesses 7 billion pounds (about $9.6 billion) a year.
Britain has at least 150,000 exporters who have never sent their goods beyond the bloc, according to data from the country’s tax agency, and so will need to make customs declarations for the first time. Border checks within the European Union were scrapped in 1993.
This is a change that will be immediately felt at Britain’s ports, especially the Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel terminus at Folkestone, which connect the country to France. But on Friday, New Year’s Day, the trains and ferries were reported to be running smoothly. Eurotunnel reported that 200 trucks had already used its shuttle train by 8 a.m.
“It does seem pretty calm,” Elizabeth De Jong, the policy director of Logistics U.K., a trade group, told Sky News on Friday morning.
But she added that businesses now faced “a new, different language of customs arrangements” that would need to be understood. She described the next few weeks as a live trial, as companies have to ensure they have the correct paperwork for themselves and the goods on board, and traffic has to be managed into the area.
In the most extreme circumstances, or what the government said was the worst case scenario, between 40 percent and 70 percent of the trucks heading to the European Union might not be ready for the new border checks. This would slow the flow of goods and could lead to lines of up to 7,000 trucks heading to the border and delays of up to two days, according to a government report.
Britain has only recently cleared a huge backlog of trucks from the border. Late on Dec. 20, the French government suddenly closed its border for 48 hours to stop the spread of a new coronavirus variant from England. Thousands of trucks and their drivers were stranded for days. Once the border reopened, they were then required to show a negative coronavirus test before they could enter France.
The delays at the normally fast-moving port also raised concerns about Britain’s supply of fresh food, much of which is imported from Europe in the winter. One fruit supplier urgently arranged to fly goods into the country. British exporters of fish and shellfish had to scramble to send their goods into France unaccompanied by drivers before they spoiled.
The spectacle amplified concerns about trade after Dec. 31, the end of the Brexit transition period. Even though goods are already moving more slowly because every driver must first get a negative coronavirus test that can take about 40 minutes to deliver results, it’s unlikely that trucks will be waiting in their thousands to enter France on Friday thanks to the quieter holiday period.
“We would expect sustained disruption to worsen over the first two weeks as freight demand builds,” the government report says. This could last about three months.
Goods entering the European Union from England, Scotland or Wales now require customs checks, including safety declarations, and truck drivers will need a permit to enter Kent, the county containing Dover and Folkestone, to confirm they have the necessary documents.
Truck drivers coming the other way face fewer requirements, for now. The British government has relaxed the rules for goods arriving into the country from the European Union for six months.
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