Haulage firms in Northern Ireland remain in the dark about how their businesses will fare in a post-Brexit world and have warned cross-border goods trade with Ireland could grind to a halt if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a withdrawal agreement in place.
Negotiators concluded a withdrawal deal in principle in October, but one industry body has said fears of a so-called no-deal Brexit will remain until the agreement is implemented in law. The United Kingdom had been due to exit the bloc on Oct. 31, before EU leaders agreed to further extend talks to Jan. 31, 2020.
(John Martin, Northern Ireland policy manager for the Road Haulage Association)
According to the Road Haulage Association, which represents around 7,000 transport firms across the United Kingdom, businesses have been unable to prepare for any Brexit scenario due to a lack of basic information from the government.
RHA figures show approximately 98 percent of goods consumed nationally are transported by road, with many hauliers dependent on frictionless cross-border trade with the European Union. Currently goods can be transported freely from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, to Ireland and vice versa as both countries are members of the European Union.
The deal agreed by the United Kingdom and the European Union aims to preserve these arrangements and would see Northern Ireland adhere to certain EU regulations, effectively creating a customs border between the territory and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Both the United Kingdom and the European Union have insisted they want to avoid the introduction of trade barriers on the island of Ireland in order to maintain peaceful north-south relations, with the status of the border becoming a key sticking point in negotiations.
The frontier was in the past a focus of political tensions between Irish nationalists and British loyalists and was the site of sectarian violence and smuggling activity. The creation of the European Union's single market in 1993 removed economic and trade barriers, paving the way for the border's liberalization.
"(This deal) is welcome although it doesn't go as far as we want, which is frictionless access to both the European Union and the rest of the United Kingdom as we have now," John Martin, 57, Northern Ireland policy manager for the RHA, told Kyodo News.
Under the negotiated agreement, goods transported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will need to undergo checks to establish whether tariffs should be applied, depending on an item's intended destination. Products intended for sale within the United Kingdom or for personal use will be exempt from duties, whereas those continuing on to the European Union will be taxable.
Firms worry that any delays caused by customs or regulatory controls will hurt business and in turn be bad for consumers.
Paul Lutton, managing director of Dumfries Freight Ltd., a small firm with around 35 drivers, said: "About 75 percent of my deliveries cross a border, whether to England or Ireland, so it's a major problem for me if there are any delays at all. You would need extra drivers to do the same job and ultimately that cost would have to be passed onto the customer."
(Paul Lutton, managing director of Dumfries Freight Ltd.)
Lutton emphasized the demand on ports on both sides of the Irish Sea. "Most of the ports in England and Ireland are absolutely full. There is already major congestion if one ferry is delayed," he explained, adding operators face charges if their trailers remain at ports for more than five days.
Martin said border delays would also pose a safety risk for drivers. "If drivers are going to be waiting in long queues, there will need to be welfare facilities and parking capacity," he said.
He added that while the proposed agreement is preferable to a no-deal exit, further information would be needed to allow firms to prepare -- for example, on where border checks will take place and the exact conditions hauliers will need to meet.
He stressed that until the deal is approved by Parliament, the legal default remains that the United Kingdom will exit the bloc with no agreement. "The sector still has to be prepared for a no-deal scenario," he commented.
(A border bridge between Northern Ireland and Ireland)
In the absence of a ratified withdrawal treaty, it is unclear even whether vehicles from Northern Ireland would be licensed to enter the European Union. In addition, trucks would almost certainly face tariffs and tighter border controls when crossing into Ireland.
In this case "nobody knows what would happen to the volume of goods that is transported in and out of the European Union every day," explained Martin.
He said that while "any extension has to be welcomed" as relieving pressure on the industry, around 50 percent of businesses are still under-prepared for any Brexit outcome.
The next steps for businesses will depend on the result of the upcoming general election, Martin added, saying, "There is still no clarity given the increased uncertainty."
Parliament voted in late October to hold an election on Dec. 12 in an attempt to break the deadlock over Brexit.