Whether you are remain or leave; one thing is now certain. From 11pm, GMT on the 31st January 2020 the United Kingdom will no longer be part of Europe. But what does this mean for ports and airports as they look towards the future relationship with the remaining EU27?
Well firstly, if you have ever had to wonder why you needed to show your passport as you travelled on the Eurostar out of London but could drive across Europe without anyone stopping you, the answer is quite simple. The United Kingdom opted out of the Schengen Agreement back in 1985 when it was introduced.
This agreement, between 22 of the 28 (as was) countries meant that EU nationals no longer had to show a passport as they crossed a border. In fact, with almost 1.7million EU Nationals crossing a border every day to go to work the agreement made sense. At the time Ireland and the United Kingdom opted for a common travel area instead.
So, with limited free travel to the ‘Island Nation’, border control is something that the United Kingdom has always had to contend with. Surely this means then that regardless of the outcome of the 11-month transition period everything will be fine?
Well, the answer is a yes and a no at the same time. Maybe it isn’t such an easy question. At present border control into the UK from the EU is conducted at the port of origin. Anyone who has travelled on a ferry out of Dover will know how the security compares to the security in Calais.
Huge fences bare down as you approach Calais, police teams patrol and attempt to break up the illegal camps. This is in stark contrast to the security in Dover, where ancient chain link and rolled mesh fencing sags along the high street. So, what happens at the end of the transition period?
Well customs play the biggest part. If we step away from the ‘battle bus statements’ on illegal immigration and instead look toward facts instead, the complexity of the situation starts to become apparent. Currently the customs union helps to provide a main land zone; in the event of the transition period resulting in no customs union the emphasis would be on the UK to integrate this on UK Ports and routes of entry. This would range from all ports and airports regardless of their size. Suddenly a local airport could become technically an international one.
With the proposed Irish Sea ‘Customs Stop’, ports would need to be able to deal with checks as they happen on the British Main Land. All of this is possible; but let us look at the time scales.
11 months… Most major security projects in the UK normally work on at least a couple of years of planning to deal with major changes. As it currently stands this could be reduced to mere months if not weeks. The danger is do Airports and Ports invest in permanent solutions early in preparation of the need for these at the end of the transition period or do they wait in the hope that everything will be sorted and they can continue business as normal?
Past examples such as the response to Operation Stack has resulted in mass delays and chaos at the ports. So can Airports and Ports wait to see what the future customs relationship with the EU looks like or do they have to act now to prevent the chance of chaos?