Port operations, UK maritime trade and tugboat demand will be disrupted if the UK Government fails to agree an orderly withdrawal from the European Union.
British ports have sought guarantees that the UK Government will continue to negotiate a deal with the EU in order to minimise disruption from 29 March when the UK is set to leave the EU.
However, after a historic vote in the UK Parliament on 15 January, where the government was defeated by 230 votes, a no-deal Brexit is looking increasingly likely.
Members of Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's negotiated Brexit deal by 432 votes to 202. The EU has restated since this deal was agreed in November 2018 that it would not renegotiate.
The increasing likelihood of a no-deal exit worries the nation’s ports enough for British Ports Association chief executive Richard Ballantyne to call on the UK Government and EU to return to negotiations.
“Some in our sector will have real concern about the increasing possibility of a no-deal Brexit outcome,” said Mr Ballantyne.
“We would urge the Government to clarify its alternative plans immediately and do whatever is necessary to avoid a disorderly withdrawal from the EU.”
In the meantime, the UK Government has started to implement arrangements to reduce port and transport disruption. One of these involves work, including dredging, to reopen the Port of Ramsgate for the return of roro ferries. It has granted a £13.8M (US$17.8M) contract with Seaborne Freight to operate a ferry service between Ramsgate and Ostend, Belgium, despite this company not owning any ships.
However, maritime trade through other UK ports is expected to be disrupted if there are no formal arrangements for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
For this increasing possibility, the British Ports Association has been in discussions with UK ministers concerning the implications of a no-deal Brexit.
“While plans are in place to mitigate some of the worst aspects of this, the fundamental dangers to free flowing trade remain and must be avoided if at all possible”
“We know they fully appreciate the disruption that this would entail at certain key port gateways,” said Mr Ballantyne.
“While plans are in place to mitigate some of the worst aspects of this, the fundamental dangers to free flowing trade remain and must be avoided if at all possible.”
He highlighted that ports have a vested interest in a stable and healthy British economy, and therefore, so do tug and other port service vessel operators.
“We are obviously now very close to exit day and many in the ports sector will be seeking guarantees that time will found for further negotiation to avoid the UK leaving the EU on unfavourable terms,” said Mr Ballantyne.
The UK Government has implemented contingency plans for trade through ports, including Dover, Plymouth, Poole and Portsmouth. It has provisionally awarded contracts up to £103M to three ferry operators – Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne Freight – to increase services after 29 March.
However, this does not include other seaborne fluid and dry bulk and container trade between the UK and the EU. It is anticipated that disruption may reduce trade levels, ship berthing and therefore tug operations.
Editor Martyn Wingrove worked at the Port of Ramsgate in 1994-5 for ferry operator at that time, Sally Line, which operated a fast passenger ship service to Ostend and a ropax ferry line to Dunkirk, France. Although there are no commercial ferry operations from Ramsgate, the port has become a logistics hub for offshore renewables construction and windfarm maintenance vessels.