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John Shirley has been in the freight forwarding business for over 25 years, in which time he has overcome countless logistical challenges, including the delivery of aid shipments to the Balkans during the Yugoslav Wars in the mid-90s. John’s business still moves goods to and from the Balkans, but it’s his ability to communicate the obstacles presented by Brexit that’s thrust the experienced freight-forwarder into the limelight in recent times.

Indeed, John’s depth of knowledge, as well as his clear and direct communication style, has seen him make appearances on countless major television networks throughout Europe in the last few years.

Last week we caught up with John to see how the post-Brexit situation appears from a freight forwarder’s perspective, as well as how Brexit has influenced the road transport industry in the EU and the Balkans.

John has long advocated the UK remaining in the EU, and hasn’t changed his mind based on what’s happened since January 1st. That said, he admitted his surprise at the ease at which his import clearances had gone so far:

The system at the moment is that you have two weeks to do an import clearance. So the truck crosses over, we do the entry, and then it’s processed by HMRC within two weeks. I’m a little surprised that we haven’t had any complaints or rejections so far. So I’m surprised I don’t have any entries rejected. 

We are sitting in the office doing most of these entries through customs pro and none of them are getting rejected, which is amazing. Either they’re doing it deliberately to prevent shortages or they’re just brilliant. 

The second thing is that there’s been problems on the export side, that’s why people are going empty. Because they actually have to do customs right away. There’s no question about it. And that ought to have been the same for the import side of things on the first of July. And next month, there should have been veterinary examinations. There’s 125 different health certificates, and that would probably have affected things. 

However, as you know, they’ve postponed all that for another 6 months. As I’ve just put out on Twitter this morning, could you imagine how food shortages in Scotland would affect the elections next month?

Touching on the delay of those customs and veterinary checks, John was certain that a 6 month postponement would do little to help given the skills shortage and the time it takes to train officers:

As I’ve said in the past, it takes us at least two years to train a customs clerk, to learn the basics, and then five years for them to be allowed to work independently. 

So that’s the sort of scale of things you’re looking at. And I can give you a recent case; we have a regular importer from Italy, and we did a customs entry for them for the first time. They’ve been importing for two decades and it ought to be straightforward. We’d done the entry, but it was quite specific and they wanted something altered to suit their system, as they’re quite a technically minded outfit. And it just got lost, the paperwork just evaporated in the system. So it kind of shows you that you can do some things, but when it gets above a high level of complexity for customers, It doesn’t work. 

I do think about these veterinary officers. The port health officers have been in some of the meetings with the British international freight Association. They said that they didn’t know how we’re going to cope with all these trucks. And you can see that we can’t even cope with the exports, let alone the imports. 

They only work 9-5, Monday to Friday. So what can they do about the 5,000 or so trucks that come through on Saturday or Sunday? I estimate around half of the trucks coming into Great Britain from the European mainland contain food, and then there’s trucks coming across the Irish sea as well. So where are all these port health officers? And how long does it take to train them?

I think it’s even longer than for us to train customs clerks because of the complexity of port health. There’s all sorts of different plants and trees and types of food and whether it’s processed this way or that way. You could imagine it taking 10 years for one of those health officers to be fully competent, and postponing checks to January doesn’t kill the problem.

If they stick to the deadline of next January, and the parts aren’t getting through, the components aren’t getting through or the raw materials aren’t getting through to production lines, then the factories will just grind to a halt. For example, we deal with Renold Gears regularly and when we are late with the shipment, they all get very upset because they can’t produce the gears. The government doesn’t seem to care, which seems unbelievable. What can motivate a government to totally destroy its own economy?

Also, a friend of mine works for Eurotunnel freight Shuffle. He offered to go on furlough, but they said they were too busy. This year, they’ve cut the number of trains from five to two an hour I believe. And now he’s got furlough. So is that a first example of Brexit furlough being disguised as COVID furlough?

Lorries at Dover docks

Some British hauliers have expressed confidence they’ll do well out of Brexit, and have already stated they are able to get better rates than they had done previously. 

Although John admits that may be the case, he also believes the UK haulage sector is simply too small to pick up the slack. At the same time, he has heard of how one massive European haulier has not been put off transporting loads in and out of the UK:

Yes, some British companies may be able to get better prices. However, I don’t really think that there’s the capacity in British owned trucks to take up the slack. I can’t see it. Of the 13,500 trucks a day going through East Kent, almost all of them are from the continent, and I can’t see any Brits making up any of those volumes whatsoever.

You’ve got several costs as a haulier. As always, you’ve got your road tolls, you’ve got your leasing costs, and they will have to be paid monthly, or you get your account stopped.  But your main cost, and your main concern, is your drivers. If they are paid by the kilometre, which I understand is true for about 60% of continental drivers, they will simply quit working for you and go and work for somebody who can give loads within the EU – that’s your scenario.

On the other hand, I have heard that a massive haulier from the Baltics has stopped this form of payment for drivers going in and out of the UK. One of my drivers that I know very well tells me this company now just employs their drivers by the month on a low wage. So it doesn’t matter to the drivers whether they get stuck at a border or not, or delayed at the off-load point. They just keep them on a very low monthly wage and that’s it. So that explains why they say they’re going to keep on coming, even if it does appear to be exploiting drivers. 

Aržano border crossing Croatia-Bosnia 4

John is already familiar with how a country’s EU status can result in significant changes to the routes hauliers take. As he explained during our online meeting, Croatian hauliers immediately turned towards the single market once they had acceded to the EU – making it tough to find trucks for  Bosnia:

Before Croatia entered the EU, we could easily load a Croatian truck from, for example, Manchester to Sarajevo. But you can’t do it now – they just aren’t interested. 

Normally they’d grab the load with open hands because it’s great to get a load out of the UK – as you know there’s not much in the way of export now. But they won’t, and they’ll say we haven’t got 3rd country permits and we can’t risk the driver quitting on us because he’s stuck at customs on entering Bosnia. 

So those ex-Yugoslav countries that are in the EU are not interested in going to Bosnia at all. We’ve cultivated friendships with hauliers from Bosnia, but that’s taking ages. And they themselves have taken a long time to actually start coming to the UK and to be reliable.

Despite having an altogether pessimistic view of Brexit, John does say there is one silver lining – he’s certain no other EU nation will bother to follow in the UK’s footsteps.

On Saturday I was on a UCL Fintech Society panel on Brexit. We were asked if there was a silver lining to it. Yes, I said, it is going to be such a colossal disaster that no other country will ever attempt to do the same. There will not be an Italexit or Grexit or any other kind.


Photo credit: John Shirley

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