With politicians arguing over Brexit, tug owners and ports should prepare for no-deal and a disorganised exit
While the UK Parliament considers a Plan B for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, there are questions whether ports and tug operators will be ready for a no-deal scenario.
With less than 10 weeks until Brexit, politicians continue to argue over not just the structure of the withdrawal, but also whether it will happen in the expected timeframe.
As things stand at the time of writing, there is no agreement on a proposed deal with the EU, nor is there agreement on a possible alternative, although another key vote on amendments is scheduled for 29 January.
However this vote goes, port operators and companies that provide marine services in harbours and coastal towage need to be prepared for all scenarios – a no-deal withdrawal, an UK-EU agreement, or an indefinite Brexit delay.
Prime Minister Theresa May presented her second plan to members of Parliament on 21 January after her initial proposed agreement with the EU was thoroughly rejected by MPs last week.
Ms May’s negotiated Brexit deal was defeated by 432 votes to 202, making it the biggest government defeat on record. This demonstrated how divided the house is, just as the UK as a whole is divided.
The EU has restated since this deal was agreed in November 2018 that it would not renegotiate, although this resolve is likely to be tested in the coming weeks. The UK Government has restated that it intends to follow the small majority of the UK population that voted to leave the EU (51% versus 49% to remain). The standoff points to a no-deal and disorganised exit as the most likely scenario. Unless someone climbs down.
The increasing likelihood of a no-deal exit worries the nation’s port operators, and it should worry tug owners, too. Last week, British Ports Association chief executive Richard Ballantyne called on the UK Government and EU to return to negotiations to bash out an agreement that is acceptable to a majority of MPs.
Mr Ballantyne was seeking guarantees of continued negotiations in the hope of minimising disruption from 29 March, when the UK is set to leave the EU.
Port operators are hoping the EU will be willing to reopen negotiations and that the UK Government can agree on what needs to be changed in order to facilitate an agreement before deadline day. It is a tall order.
Which is why ports and tug owners need to be prepared for the worst. The UK Government has implemented plans to increase lorry capacity in ports and for a truck park in Manston, Kent. However, we hear very little about preparations for bulk liquids and dry cargo, or the container trade – surely there are contingency plans?
There are many questions. Will there be any delays in these trades because of customs checks? Yes, very likely. Will there be increased or reduced shipping and berthing in ports? Will traders avoid the UK until trade agreements are reached? Will they stockpile prior to 29 March?
For tug operators there are also questions covering long-term manning requirements and rules affecting the mobilisation of tugs between the UK and EU, to name just a few.
Mr Ballantyne highlighted that some ports will see greater disruption than others. In particular, those with direct trade with EU ports, such as Dover, Plymouth, Poole and Portsmouth. He anticipates there would be barriers to free-flowing trade and delays in key port gateways.
Other ports should benefit from disruption, particularly Ramsgate, which is set to have a ferry service for the first time in more than 10 years, if the contracted company can lay its hands on a roro ship in time. Perhaps there will be new business for tug operators.
Likewise, some tug owners will benefit from increasing demand for their services, while others are likely to see a drop-off in requirements and may need to consider redeploying vessels.
With no-deal still a potential outcome and withdrawal on World Trade Organization terms, ports and tug owners need to prepare for the worst. That way they can cope with whatever the fallout is from this Brexit stalemate.