James Hookham, deputy CEO of the Freight Transport Association, says that the UK will need to replace Community permits on Brexit day.

Up to now, all the Brexit talk has been about its impact on trade and goods movements and the rights of Eastern European drivers to continue working and driving in the UK. These are still critical issues but at least they are now firmly on the government’s agenda and there may even be agreement on the right of EU citizens to stay in the UK after Brexit by the time you read this.

There remain many other matters to be sorted out in the road transport sector for Brexit to work smoothly. One of them is the ability of trucks to make international journeys into and out of the UK once the border is re-imposed on 29 March 2019. Currently, an unlimited number of these journeys is permitted under the EU’s Community Licence arrangements, but the UK leaves the “Community” on Brexit day and no community will mean no licences to journey freely across the EU any longer. What will replace them?

It was only 25 years ago that international road transport was governed by the permits and quotas issued under the ECMT rules or under bilateral deals with individual countries. These were replaced by the open borders and Community Licences of the European Single Market in 1993. Back then, freight flows between the UK and the EU were only a fraction of what they are today, but with the number of Community Licences unlimited and freely available, the old ECMT permit limits have simply not kept pace with the explosion of UK-EU traffic that has taken place since. So, although they still exist as a fall back option, the number of ECMT permits available is grossly inadequate to serve the current levels of trade.

Brexit no deal funding

The idea of a limit on the number of foreign trucks that are allowed to enter the UK on international journeys in a year may well appeal to some in the haulage sector who see potential to reclaim work currently lost to cabotage. But those manufacturing and retail businesses reliant on high frequency, short-notice crossings to keep them and their customers supplied will be horrified that the continuation of their just-in-time deliveries could depend on a first-come-first-served allocation of a strictly limited number of old-style international haulage permits.

Of course, you would expect a relaxation on the number of international journeys permitted would be included in the new free trade deal that the government wants to reach with the EU, and the FTA understands this is indeed the intention. But the DfT will need to be working on a plan B, because if no agreement is reached, or the negotiations collapse and we have a no-deal Brexit, then the current number of permits available to UK hauliers will only cover about 5% of the number of journeys made last year. About the only upside of that is that it will at least will solve the problem of queues at Dover because there will be no point setting off in the first place. Never mind the Customs checks: no haulage permit means no crossing!

Without a deal on international road transport, ro-ro traffic to the Continent and Ireland will effectively cease, no matter what agreements have been reached on trade and Customs. This is, of course, an unthinkable, but so far unthought of, situation. As the next stage of the UK-EU negotiations gets underway, both sides need to address the urgent need to lift the restrictions on the number of international haulage permits available, to at least reflect the current levels of activity. Or face the embarrassing outcome of reaching a new free trade agreement but with no trucks to carry it out with.