UK to open 10-12 Brexit border customs sites in EU trading shake-up

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent
·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

The UK government is to build “10 to 12” new Brexit border customs and controls sites across the country in a move that Michael Gove has said cements the mission to “take back control” from the EU.

In the biggest shake-up to trading with the EU for 50 years, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announced the £470m programme for facilities to process freight going to and from the EU, along with a 206-page document detailing new border controls.

Five sites are likely to be in Kent and are expected to be operational by 1 January, when the UK leaves the customs union and single market.

They will handle up to 400m customs declarations a year, insiders said on Monday, with HM Revenue & Customs writing to 12,000 businesses trading with the EU – who up to now have not had to fill in customs declarations – warning them of the changes ahead.

Gove told the House of Commons that January marked “the next chapter of our history as a fully independent United Kingdom”, which could determine its own recovery path from Covid-19 without deferring to Brussels.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said that with this dramatic change to the trading regime announced just months before Brexit becomes operational, many businesses were wondering “whether the oven was even turned on” when Boris Johnson promised voters his “oven-ready deal”.

She said government estimates of 400m customs declarations a year would add £12.8bn in costs to British business.

The new trading system will be phased in over six months with checks on food and goods of animal origin, as well as customs declarations on imports and exports at the border by July.

Government insiders warned the new systems and process would apply whether or not there was a free trade deal and said it was “an important message” to get across to businesses.

Extra layers of controls with veterinary certificates and health checks will be required for the import of food, live animals including racehorses and the wooden crates or pallets on which they are carried.

If a trade deal is struck there will be additional checks on the origin of the goods and possible tariffs, depending on the agreement with the EU.

Together they represent the reversal of 47 years of no trade barriers, including when the single market was launched in 1993.

Gove insisted that the government was still in confidential “commercial negotiations” for the Brexit border facilities including a 27-acre site on the outskirts of Ashford.

(January 31, 1961)  Brefusal

The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoes Britain’s entry to EEC, accusing the UK of a “deep-seated hostility” towards the European project.

(January 31, 1973)  Brentry

With Sir Edward Heath having signed the accession treaty the previous year, the UK enters the EEC in an official ceremony complete with a torch-lit rally, dickie-bowed officials and a procession of political leaders, including former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

(January 31, 1975)  Referendum

The UK decides to stay in the common market after 67% voted "yes". Margaret Thatcher, later to be leader of the Conservative party, campaigned to remain.

(January 31, 1984)  'Give us our money back'

Margaret Thatcher negotiated what became known as the UK rebate with other EU members after the "iron lady" marched into the former French royal palace at Fontainebleau to demand “our own money back” claiming for every £2 contributed we get only £1 back” despite being one of the “three poorer” members of the community.

It was a move that sowed the seeds of Tory Euroscepticism that was to later cause the Brexit schism in the party. 

(January 31, 1988)  The Bruges speech

Thatcher served notice on the EU community in a defining moment in EU politics in which she questioned the expansionist plans of Jacques Delors, who had remarked that 80% of all decisions on economic and social policy would be made by the European Community within 10 years with a European government in “embryo”. That was a bridge too far for Thatcher.

(January 31, 1989)  The cold war ends

Collapse of Berlin wall and fall of communism in eastern Europe, which would later lead to expansion of EU.

(January 31, 1990) 'No, no, no'

Divisions between the UK and the EU deepened with Thatcher telling the Commons in an infamous speech it was ‘no, no, no’ to what she saw as Delors’ continued power grab. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ratchets up its opposition to Europe with a two-fingered “Up yours Delors” front page.

(January 31, 1992)  Black Wednesday

A collapse in the pound forced prime minister John Major and the then chancellor Norman Lamont to pull the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

(January 31, 1993)  The single market

On 1 January, customs checks and duties were removed across the bloc. Thatcher hailed the vision of “a single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people".

(January 31, 1993) Maastricht treaty

Tory rebels vote against the treaty that paved the way for the creation of the European Union. John Major won the vote the following day in a pyrrhic victory. 

(January 31, 1997)  Repairing the relationship

Tony Blair patches up the relationship. Signs up to social charter and workers' rights.

(January 31, 1999)  Ukip

Nigel Farage elected an MEP and immediately goes on the offensive in Brussels. “Our interests are best served by not being a member of this club,” he said in his maiden speech. “The level playing field is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit an iceberg.”

(January 31, 2003) The euro

Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the UK will not join the euro.

(January 31, 2004) 

EU enlarges to to include eight countries of the former eastern bloc including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

(January 31, 2007) 

EU expands again, allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the club.

(January 31, 2015) Migrant crisis

Anti-immigration hysteria seems to take hold with references to “cockroches” by Katie Hopkins in the Sun and tabloid headlines such as “How many more can we take?” and “Calais crisis: send in the dogs”.

(February 1, 2016) 

David Cameron returns from Brussels with an EU reform package - but it isn't enough to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party

(June 23, 2016)  Brexit referendum

The UK votes to leave the European Union, triggering David Cameron's resignation and paving the way for Theresa May to become prime minister

(January 31, 2020)  Britain leaves the EU

After years of parliamentary impasse during Theresa May's attempt to get a deal agreed, the UK leaves the EU.

He rebuffed demands from several MPs to name the shortlist of sites, causing anger at the lack of consultation with local communities over what many fear will lead to noise, air and water pollution.

Damian Green, the Conservative MP for Ashford, asked Gove “what environmental impact assessment has been done” for the proposed site in his constituency as it was next to planned housing and the local hospital.

Government sources said some of the five sites in Kent would be holding pens, or lorry parks, and not facilities for checking customs, transit and health certificates.

Sources in Kent believe Ebbsfleet International and the disused Manston airport near Ramsgate are under consideration for lorry parks in the event of congestion on the roads to Dover. Manston has recently been given the green light to reopen as an air freight cargo hub but could still be used next year as a contingency for traffic congestion on the roads to Dover.

Tim Reardon, the head of EU exit at the Port of Dover, welcomed the confirmation of inland controls as gridlock was otherwise almost a certainty in the town.

“They’ve taken on board the key principles that they need to get the processes moved away from the border, but there is still a lot of work to be done to finalise everything,” he said.

Many industry leaders have warned that the government has left the infrastructure and IT systems too late to develop, threatening chaos in the first few months of 2021 if lorries arrive in Dover or Calais without the right paperwork.

The government has already delayed the implementation of full border controls for EU imports for six months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan has caused internal friction at cabinet level, with the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, last week protesting it would leave the UK vulnerable to smuggling and a legal challenge by the World Trade Organization.

On Monday there wasfresh sabre-rattling from former Brexit campaigners on the Tory backbenches about the likely shape of an EU trade deal.

They have seized on a report published by the new thinktank the Centre for Brexit Policy, which argues that the government could repudiate aspects of the withdrawal agreement if it believes the EU not to be using its “best endeavours” to negotiate.

The former Brexit minister David Jones, deputy chairman of the European Research Group, said the report had “crystallised a whole range of concerns” among Conservative MPs.

In particular, they claim that EU demands of a “level playing field” compromise UK sovereignty.

The former Brexit secretary David Davis said the government should threaten to reopen the financial settlement between the two sides as a negotiating tool. “We should say, ‘I think we need to talk again about the money,’” he said.

Another former minister, Iain Duncan Smith, said he was convinced ministers were studying the report seriously.

But asked whether the government was considering renegotiating the agreement, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Monday: “The prime minister already successfully renegotiated the withdrawal agreement, securing a new deal that works for the whole of the UK and moves us forward to a new partnership with the EU based on a comprehensive and ambitious free trade agreement.”

Monday’s document also reveals new customs declarations reminiscent of pre-duty-free days.

From January, anyone carrying goods worth more than £1,500 in a small vehicle will have to declare the goods using the red channel, with additional controls for more than £10,000 in cash. This will apply to couriers who are transporting it on behalf of business.

Customs forms will also have to be filled out for people receiving goods through the post that do not exceed £900 in value.