Reference:CGTN | Updated:5 Jan 2021
"The good news is that I've slept well these past few nights," said Port of Zeebrugge CEO Tom Hautekiet as he looked out at freight containers spread as far as the eye could see. It was the first working day since the Brexit transition period ended and it was quieter than some had expected.
A flurry of stockpiling by UK companies late last year had helped ease the transition from frictionless trade to an influx of new customs and security checks. There were no visible backlogs and hauliers came prepared. Hautekiet said less than five percent of drivers showed up with the wrong paperwork.
"The first of January is the perfect day for the changes because it's very calm, the calmest time of the year," said Hautekiet. "This gives us time to learn and fine-tune if needed."
Upwards of 7,000 trucks enter the Flemish port every day. As the biggest automotive hub in the world, many are piled high with new vehicles. More than a quarter of them are bound for the UK. But it's not just cars. Nearly 40 percent of Zeebrugge's total traffic heads across the Channel.
Things may be quiet now, but as cross-border traffic increases in the coming weeks and new technology is tested, delays are expected. Customs staff numbers were doubled at Zeebrugge to push through any pile-ups. And new green lanes are in place to quickly transit lorries with the proper paperwork. Hautekiet said his biggest concern now is the new IT system, which allows the port, the UK, and the customs organizations to talk to each other.
"If it's not working, there's not a fast alternative to the paperwork that's able to withstand 5,000 or 6,000 trucks a day. It's just impossible," he said.
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Ports have also been quiet across the Channel, where some are predicting the calm before the storm.
"The true test will come when the volume starts to build," Stena Line's Ian Davies told Sky News, adding that the stockpiling by both sides will take weeks to work its way through the system.
The Brexit transition period ended on January 1, finalizing the UK's split from the EU. A tariff-free, quota-free trade deal was clinched on Christmas Eve, but with Britain no longer a member of the customs union or single market, new security checks are necessary.
Customs Broker Charles Hogg said adapting to the new rules could be harder for some.
"A lot of these unprepared importers will get fines, they will get extra truck waiting time, and have a lot of additional costs," said Hogg who is also the Commercial Director at Unsworth.
Zeebrugge has an ace card up its sleeve, setting it apart from the ports of Dunkirk and Calais: more than 90 percent of the freight that transits through Zeebrugge to the UK does so without a driver. That means fewer customs forms, permits and negative covid-19 tests. It's a business opportunity not lost on CEO Tom Hautekiet.
"I can imagine that companies will make that switch more and more in the direction of unaccompanied freight because it easy, convenient and covid proof."