Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (42, 48)

James Browne


42. Deputy James Browne asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has discussed with his UK counterpart the issue of border checks on trucks originating here and arriving in the UK from Rosslare Europort where it is planned to travel onwards to another country in the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36513/19]

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Lisa Chambers


48. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of efforts to address issues regarding the landbridge, particularly in the context of a no-deal Brexit scenario; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37466/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

Question No. 48 relates to the landbridge. I wish to ask the Tánaiste the status of efforts regarding the landbridge. In particular, in the context of a no-deal scenario, what is the plan to try to alleviate the pressures that will inevitably come from that?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 42 and 48 together.

Upon leaving the EU, the United Kingdom will accede to the common transit convention, CTC. Under the convention, goods moving from Ireland to another member state via the UK, or vice versa, will move under the customs internal transit procedure. Once European Union goods are moving under the customs transit procedure from one member state to another through a third country, which essentially would be the UK, no duties or taxes will be applicable.

Since December 2018, considerable progress has been made in clarifying the application of EU rules and an agreed understanding has been reached on the continued use of the landbridge under the internal transit procedure to ensure that Irish and EU operators can continue to use the landbridge in an effective and efficient way. Work continues at a technical level to provide absolute clarity on the application of certain EU rules and procedures with regard to sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, controls on animals and products of animal origin.

In addition, the necessary infrastructure has been put in place in Dublin and Rosslare ports to enable operators to open and close the transit procedure. The UK will also need to facilitate an office of transit in its ports. To this end, our officials in London and Cardiff met again recently with the port in Dover and will visit Holyhead and Folkestone shortly. However, in a no-deal scenario, it is anticipated that the landbridge, at least in the initial period, would be subject to significant delays and congestion. The Dover to Calais crossing has been identified as a particular bottleneck.

It is also the case that the use of the landbridge after Brexit will not replicate the status quo for operators and will depend on traders being compliant with the new requirements under the CTC and also being in line with EU requirements. It is vital that businesses act now to ensure that they understand the necessary paperwork in respect of issues such as customs formalities and putting financial guarantees in place and that, where relevant, they are aware of SPS procedures. Targeted information campaigns are under way to ensure that operators are aware of the steps they must take and the supports available to them.

In fairness to the UK, it has tried to facilitate this by signing up to the convention. In simple terms, the way this will work is that if a container leaving Dublin is sealed in Dublin, the seal will not need to be opened as it crosses the landbridge and the container can re-enter the Single Market. This will mean using the landbridge in the most seamless way we can make it. There are ways we can do that for food products too but a great deal of extra paperwork will be needed to ensure it runs smoothly.

The Tánaiste's last point about the extra paperwork is something I intended to raise with him. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Irish Road Haulage Association. Small hauliers have significant concerns. Citizens will probably be surprised to learn that the average size of a company fleet in Ireland is four trucks. The bigger hauliers will have the capacity to get their paperwork ready. They know what they need to do. However, significant disruption could arise because small hauliers will arrive at ports without having their paperwork ready and may be turned away.

There is a body of work to be done because that will effectively mean empty spaces on our supermarket shelves for the weeks following the initial emergency situation.

If we want to reach out to the small haulier, the level of engagement is not at the level it needs to be at, and it needs to be increased in the coming weeks.

On the issue around the use of the landbridge, I know some work has been done around direct access so trucks can go straight from Ireland to mainland Europe and bypass the UK altogether. The difficulty is the difference in time. It currently takes 20 hours to go straight through the landbridge as opposed to 40 hours to go direct, according to figures from the Irish Maritime Development Office. I appreciate the Tánaiste said the status quo will not be maintained in any case and that the 20 hours is likely to increase. However, this poses a significant problem for perishable goods, in particular those that have a shorter shelf life, which may lose value if they have an extra day's travel time. We need a solution to that so we can help that industry.

My final question concerns the issue of getting off at Calais. A number of months ago, we discussed the possibility of Irish trucks having a separate lane by which to exit to try to alleviate some of the pinch points in Calais and to try to claw back a bit of time. Will the Tánaiste update the House as to whether progress has been made in that regard?

On the last question, the French have been unbelievably helpful on this issue. They have committed to ensuring there is a separate lane in Calais for Irish trucks coming off ships that have come over from Dover. I do not expect the same facilitation on the UK side in Dover, where there may be very long queues, and I certainly do not expect that Irish trucks will be able to skip those queues. However, in terms of coming off the ships, Irish trucks and product coming from Ireland will be in a different category - they are essentially coming from the Single Market and going back into the Single Market, using the UK as a landbridge, as opposed to products coming from the UK, which will be product coming from a third country. There will be a separate lane for Irish trucks to allow them to move through the port in a much more streamlined and quicker way.

I want to thank the French authorities for that facilitation. As I said, they have been hugely helpful. We would like to get the same facilitation in other European ports and we are talking to them about that to try to ensure Irish trucks are not treated as trucks coming from a third country. I believe we are making good progress on that.

The Deputy mentioned empty shelves in shops. The information I have is that we are not going to have empty shelves in our supermarkets. We may need to change supply chains, we may need to change suppliers for certain products and some brands may be different in the future. However, retailers are confident that they will be able to continue to fill shelf space, even in a no-deal scenario.

I welcome the fact the Tánaiste thinks there will be no empty shelf space. There is concern because when we had bad weather, trucks were not able to travel for a day or two and we did have empty shelves. I am anticipating that if the worst does happen, the calamity around the ports might impact on supply chains, even for a short period, although perhaps that will not happen.

I also want to share in thanking France for being such a good neighbour and a decent member state in helping us on that front. I certainly think it wise and prudent to pursue a similar arrangement with other ports on mainland Europe to facilitate Irish trucks. The Dover situation leaves us in a very precarious position. I imagine that not only will we not get the same treatment we are going to get in Calais, but the requirements on our paperwork will be quite stringent, and I have no doubt that Irish trucks will be turned away in that immediate period. That leaves us in a very tricky situation.

I reiterate the point that the small hauliers are just not ready. There is a significant body of work to be done. If they are not ready and they are caught with no paperwork and stopped at the ports, that will impact on every citizen in the country in ways we probably do not even know at this time. What those hauliers are saying is that because they are operating on such a tight margin, they are very concerned just to stay in business in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

There are concerns about the readiness of some in the haulage business for the new realities in terms of paperwork and what they need to do. We want to work with them. My message to all hauliers it is that they need to prepare for a very different trade environment and that we are going to help them to do that. We can give them advice and financial support. We want to make sure that the big and small operators are ready by the end of October, like the SMEs and other sectors, some of which may not be ready yet, and we are also trying to reach out to them. Both advice and support are now available and they are easily accessible. I appeal to hauliers, big and small, to make sure they are as ready as they need to be.