Britain’s border risks becoming snarled up in a no-deal Brexit because of low preparation amongst traders, new EU controls and a growing threat from organised crime, according to the National Audit Office.
As few as 30 per cent of traders are adequately prepared for a no-deal Brexit, which would see £438bn worth of trade revert to World Trade Organisation rules. Those include customs controls, tariffs and non-tariffs barriers.
The most significant risks remain the low proportion of traders ready for the new checks, the likelihood of EU controls and the unsustainable nature of any compromise on the Northern Irish border, the National Audit Office said in a report.
“Although the government has actions under way to influence these, mitigating these risks is now, to some extent, out of its control,” the government’s spending watchdog said.
“It is impossible to know exactly what would happen at the border in the event of no-deal on 31 October 2019.”
It added that criminal gangs would try to take advantages of the new weaknesses created at the border.
“Despite the government’s actions, it has been unable to mitigate the most significant risks to the effective functioning of the UK border in the event of no deal and the border would be ‘less than optimal,’” the audit office said.
“It is likely that organised criminals and others would quickly exploit any perceived weaknesses, gaps or inconsistencies in the enforcement regime.”
The UK is set to leave the bloc at the end of this month. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to strike a last-minute deal, but has said if the EU refuses he will take Britain out on a no-deal basis.
More than 228m tonnes of freight – equivalent to 760,000 jumbo jets – crossed between the UK and the rest of the EU last year. Any disruption could quickly turn southern England and northern France into sprawling lorry parts as ports come to a standstill.
The number of annual customs declarations would balloon from around 55m to 270m, and just between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of lorries travelling across the Channel might be ready for French customs, the audit office said.
In the latest worst-case no-deal scenario, Britain estimates cross-Channel flow rate would fall to between 45 per cent and 60 per cent of current levels on the first day after Brexit, it said.
Only about 25,000 of the 150,000 to 250,000 traders that may need to make a customs declaration in the event of a no-deal Brexit had registered with a scheme that allows them to delay submitting their declarations and payments of import duties.
“A large proportion of traders and businesses would not be ready for new customs and regulatory controls if the UK leaves without a deal,” the audit office said.
“EU member states are likely to introduce controls which would significantly reduce the flow of traffic that is able to cross the border.”