Hanging By a Thread

Date: 16/05/2018
Author: Chris Fletcher
Company: GMCC

Chris Fletcher - Marketing & Campaigns Director, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Earlier this week myself and a group of Chamber colleagues and members spent about an hour or so in France. That doesn’t sound so impressive in this day and age, does it? But we didn’t cross or go under any water and we made the journey in a minibus.

This isn't quite as impressive in reality as it may sound as we were on a visit to the Euro Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. If you’ve used the service you will know that as part of the process you actually pass through the French border on this side of the Channel (so much for the only land border with the EU being in Ireland – but I’ll come back to that later) and all the loading of trains is done on French soil. The technical term for this is a juxtaposed border.

So notwithstanding this little nugget of information, what else did we find out from what was an enjoyable and, I have to admit, ultimately worrying afternoon in the glorious Kent sunshine?

We were there for the next phase of our successful Chamber Online Terms of Trade campaign, run with London and Bristol Chambers looking at the reality of Brexit for business.

So here’s some of that reality: In 2017 over £100bn of goods went through the tunnel; 1.6million trucks made the journey carrying 10million tonnes of freight. Whilst we were there the rate of trucks per hour was about 250 – or roughly 3 miles if bumper to bumper – being driven onto the 8 freight services an hour, 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

It was a relentless wave of trade and mesmerizing to watch trucks come off the M20, pass through the border checks and get loaded onto the shuttles. Maximum time from entry to the terminal to exit the other side – 90 minutes – the journey itself takes 35 minutes. That’s important and a USP. Why? Because it’s the quickest way there is of moving this freight so naturally it has become a must-do for anyone with fresh produce and reliant on just in time/just in sequence parts.

Having had chance to stand at the side of what is a slick, well-drilled, runs-like-clockwork system and seen what it’s like from the control room with everything under control, why should this be worrying?

There still seems no solution to how this can carry on running this way post Brexit with any of the options currently on the table. Whilst the government may well decide not to do any customs checks on inward goods, this is reliant on the EU doing the same.

There will be a border with the EU about 3 miles away from Folkestone town centre – I’ve seen it – and if there are to be outbound customs checks, then 1) there needs to be a huge infrastructure investment made to make this happen, and 2) any delays, any extra time taken, even just a few minutes, would throw a spanner into the slick operation built up over 25 years. Remember 3 miles of trucks pass through every hour. Not only that but think of the damage of any delays with fresh produce and supermarket goods.

I liken what I saw this week to a thin thread of trade. It felt robust, but seeing it for myself there on the front line of international trade really brought home its fragility too. This is serious stuff and you can have as many political discussions as you want but those trucks will need to keep on rolling, all 250 of them every hour – they have to for all our futures.