How would a no-deal Brexit hurt transport?

Travel between Britain and the rest of Europe is today routine. Most people today fly or travel through the Channel Tunnel on high-speed trains. Ships, once the only link across the seas, now mainly concern themselves with freight, carrying around nine-tenths of all that British consumers buy.

All these connections now seem ordinary, but a huge question mark hangs over them. What will happen at the end of March next year, when the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union? The European Commission has conducted extensive research on the impact on the transport sector, as has Britain’s House of Commons.

And to this already awkward concept, another is increasingly asked: what would happen in the worst-case scenario, the so-called no-deal Brexit, where the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement to maintain the many travel and transport arrangements between them?

With less than seven months to go, the negotiations between the British government and the EU 27 are – to put it mildly – in trouble, and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms large. So much so that the European Commission felt compelled last month to issue a briefing on what it might mean: transport between the EU and the UK will be “severely impacted” with roads and ports blocked by customs queues and millions of British and EU citizens would be left in legal limbo.

The briefing note says that preparing for all Brexit scenarios is “a matter for everyone” and urges private companies and individuals to “take responsibility for their individual situation.”

Much of this would be down to the re-imposition of duties and controls at the border, which could see traffic backed up. For exporters, that means delayed deliveries and longer lead times. Some estimates warn that 185,000 traders will make customs declarations for the first time. The choke point will be the Dover-Calais route, where 4.23 million freight vehicles pass per year, and 11,600 vehicles per day. With an extra two minutes per shipment, that could add up to 27km of queues.

That’s not all. Brexit’s impact on the airline industry is potentially just as serious, with the prospect of grounded planes and mass airport disruption. How could it be so dramatic? Under EU rules, carriers in Europe have to be effectively controlled by European nationals, with at least half of shares held by the bloc’s citizens. Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, is predicting “a real crisis” in April 2019. “There will be disruption, partly because it is in the interests of the Germans and the French to push the ownership agenda”.

There are other transport implications too. Could Japanese carmakers shift their UK-based plants to the EU27? Could Britain’s supply of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles dry up as British sales of these cars will no longer count towards carmakers’ EU CO2 targets after Brexit?

All this shows the serious and wide-ranging implications for much of the transport sector: even in the best-case scenario, Brexit alone will disrupt trade and travel between the two. But in a no-deal Brexit, all bets are off.