Three quarters of hauliers could be left without permits and unable to bring in goods from the continent if there is no Brexit trade deal, the freight industry has warned.
When Britain leaves the single market and customs union at the end of the year, lorry companies will lose the right to provide road transport services in the EU. Instead, they will automatically enter the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) scheme, which distributes a fixed number of permits per country. There were 8,348 UK-registered international road hauliers last year, according to Department for Transport data.
However, under the ECMT scheme, the UK would be allocated permits for only 2,088 companies.
Sarah Laouadi, European policy manager at the Freight Transport Association, said haulage businesses, already under financial strain from Covid-19, needed clarity within weeks, as “Christmas peak time starts in autumn” for the industry.
“If you learn whether you have the right to continue operating as a company on Dec 28 and the only fallback plan is the ECMT system, which requires applications and allocations for permits, it will be too late,” Ms Laouadi said. “It’s not trivial and it’s not about being a ‘Remoaner’.”
While the number of permits the UK would receive under the ECMT scheme would be decided at the EU level, the DfT would allocate them.
In no-deal contingency plans made last year, the hauliers who made the most cross-Channel journeys were prioritised, followed by those with a high proportion of international business, which did not include between Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
If the same model were used, the FTA cautioned that businesses crossing the Irish Sea may need to reroute, disrupting supply chains, and that the DfT did not appear to hold data on the number of UK-registered hauliers travelling between Britain and the Republic of Ireland last year, so it was unclear how many firms could be affected.
Unless a solution is integrated into a trade deal, one fallback plan could be negotiating bilateral agreements with individual member states on permits.
However, Ms Laouadi warned that even if this were legally feasible, negotiations with 27 countries would be lengthy, and for drivers “a patchwork of rules would be a nightmare to navigate” on top of other new Brexit paperwork. It would be especially cumbersome for UK businesses operating in more than one EU state after crossing the Channel, she added.
Alternatively, the EU could grant market access to UK hauliers for nine months, as was agreed in no-deal plans, but Ms Laouadi said that was “not a sustainable, long-term solution because the EU does not want a permanent, stand-alone arrangement”.
A 206-page document released last week, which set out the Government’s post-Brexit border plans, did not address the permits because the issue must be settled with the EU.
“What matters now is to focus efforts on securing a free trade agreement with the EU,” Ms Laouadi said.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said it was “optimistic that an agreement can be reached that will continue to enable the substantial flow of international haulage”.