In-depth knowledge of Rotterdam in Britain tends to extend little further than the lyrics of the eponymous Beautiful South song, but with Brexit looming on the horizon, what happens here will be crucial to the daily lives of people across the UK.
The port of Rotterdam is huge. By far the largest and busiest in Europe, it has been expanded every decade since the Second World War and now juts so far out into sea on reclaimed land that it takes less time to drive to neighbouring The Hague from the centre of town than it does to the tip of the city’s own harbour. Its cranes and docks stretch out further than the eye can see even on a clear day – which today, it isn’t – flanked by motorways and freight railways, and criss-crossed with ever-present Dutch bike paths.
“From a perspective of rationality it’s always hard for us to understand Brexit,” says Mark Dijk, the Rotterdam port authority’s external affairs manager. In some ways, the port is already at the heart of the British economy: its size and depth means that the very biggest ships coming to Europe from East Asia can unload their wares here – it’s the only place they fit.
“We are also a hub for the UK. All the deep-sea ships from China are coming into Rotterdam, and their goods are then going into shallow water ships to the UK,” says Dijk.
A high-tech roll-off-roll-on (RoRo) system means that products ranging from electronics to fruit enter the European single market and customs union in the Netherlands, then hours later are moved back onto smaller ships for their final voyage across the channel to Britain.
Currently, British supermarkets have a 2pm cut-off time to order something from the port to arrive on their lorries at warehouses by 5am the next day. This is possible because Britain’s EU membership means that these goods only face one bit of bureaucracy on their way – but that looks about to change.
“As port of Rotterdam we realised somewhere in September, October last year that something is really going to happen,” Dijk says. “We decided we have to do something about it. There are around 3,000 companies here, they’re not all doing business with the UK, but most of them are.”
The EU says Theresa May’s decision to leave the customs union and single market – a decision taken under her now sacked chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – will inevitably produce “frictions” to trade and necessitate customs checks. But delays could have a serious effect on the supply chain of British businesses.
“This is especially the market that is focusing on high speed supply chains. Sometimes with containers, if you’re a day late you’re fine. But if you have fresh flowers going to the UK, every day you’re late you lose 30 per cent of your profit,” says Renske Schoenmaker, a business manager at the port dealing in containers and logistics.
Another possible effect of Britain’s exit from the customs union and single market, she says, is that extra delays at the port will dramatically increase the number of trucks needed.
“That’s a big worry with the trailer companies at the moment. Because of the supply chains, they’re able to do a round trip in 24 hours now. So as soon as you have an obstruction somewhere you need two trailers to do the same work.”
Speaking to the port officials, their main concern is the uncertainty that is still hanging over the Brexit process. The final customs deal struck between Britain and the EU will be crucial, says Schoenmaker – particularly how long shipping companies will need to give advance notice to customs authorities of their load. “If that’s not early enough, that will mean they need to wait,” she adds – a state of affairs that would inevitably raise costs and add delays to the system.
Whispered reports of a possible U-turn by the British government on leaving the customs union have raised hopes here, but Rotterdam’s port authorities are not taking any chances. They’re preparing for a hard Brexit: if Britain goes out and defaults to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules without a deal, they expect thing to get very messy.
“If there will be full physical checks by the customs, a WTO scenario, that could come up to 8 or 9km or traffic jams,” says Dijk. The port authorities show The Independent a report by the Dutch ministry of infrastructure titled “Gaan we het schip in?” (roughly translated “are we boarding the ship?”) that anticipates an eventual cumulative 50 per cent reduction in trade growth with Britain as a result of Britain’s departure.
“We want to be ready in March 2019,” says Dijk, who is concerned that the UK Parliament could reject a deal and potentially see Britain crash out. (British MEPs present in the room at the time insist that the government is bluffing; that rejection of a deal would simply see Brexit paused and the UK return to the negotiating table, but the port manager is not convinced.) “If we want to broaden a road or expand a terminal, it’s almost impossible to do it from March 2019. We see the whole of Brexit as a lose-lose scenario,” he says.
A thick fog carpets the entire port as we drive half an hour from its offices to the middle of the refinery section, which deals with oil and liquid gas. Despite the massive land reclamation, space here is limited and there simply would not be the room for huge numbers of extra places for queueing lorries.
Still, the port is trying to prepare. Nationally, Dutch customs is hiring 730 customs officers thanks to Brexit, but that number could grow up to 950 between Schipol airport and the port. They’ve already had 3,000 applications, with a curiously disproportionate number of CVs from people with a military background. “Dutch people like to work in customs,” one official quips.
The port authority, which is jointly owned by the municipality of Rotterdam and the Dutch government, is also worried for itself about the political implications of Britain leaving. Britain and the Netherlands have long been political allies on free trade issues, and supported each other’s common approach to business in the European institutions.
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“We don’t get state subsidies, like the UK ports, but all the other 26 member states’ ports do get state subsidies,” Dijk says. “Within the European Sea Ports Organisation we always had a good alliance with the UK ports. But if they’re not in it anymore, that will also harm us.”
Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat MEP who is visiting the port as part of a fact-finding delegation of British politicians in the European Parliament, warns that Rotterdam’s preparations are putting the British government to shame.
“The UK government is not nearly as prepared for Brexit as the Dutch are. Frankly, it’s embarrassing,” she told The Independent. “British supermarkets rely on zero delays at the border. Brexit seriously threatens shoppers from getting their food on time at a good price.”
In Rotterdam, they’re getting on with preparing for the “lose-lose situation”.