To Hull and back

Sis­ter ports brace for Brexit storm on key trade route

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Jon Hen­ley

On a chain-link fence be­side a windswept road in north­ern Bel­gium, a ban­ner flaps bravely against the squalls whip­ping in from an an­gry sea. “Your gate­way to the UK,” it pro­claims, in English. “Brexit-proof Zee­brugge.”

That’s the plan, any­way. Since no­body in ei­ther the North Sea port or the small beach re­sort next to it knows what Brexit will ac­tu­ally look like yet, the prom­ise may be some­thing of a hostage to for­tune. But they are work­ing on it.

“We have to,” said the vet­eran cus­toms of­fi­cial man­ning a newly opened Brexit in­for­ma­tion point across the sod­den and sprawl­ing trailer park. “Half this port’s busi­ness is with Bri­tain. Five thou­sand jobs. It could have a mas­sive im­pact here.”

What­ever kind of Brexit emerges, it will touch all whose liveli­hoods have – for the past quar­ter-cen­tury – been con­di­tioned by Europe’s bor­der­less sin­gle mar­ket, and few more so than the com­mu­ni­ties on both sides of the Chan­nel that are di­rectly in­volved in trade be­tween Bri­tain and the con­ti­nent.

On Heist­straat, Mathilde Backer, who works in mar­ket­ing for a ho­tel in nearby Bruges, said she had frankly not got the faintest idea what Brexit might mean for Zee­brugge. “But it’s clear any­thing that’s bad for the port will prob­a­bly be bad for the town,” she said.

Jeroen, her partner, worked off and on for the fish auc­tion, Backer said, one of Europe’s largest: “More than half of what’s sold there is caught in Bri­tish wa­ters, and no­body knows who’s go­ing to be able to fish where af­ter Brexit. That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?”

If of­fi­cials in the port, built a cen­tury ago to re­con­nect Bruges with the sea, are con­fi­dent there can be no re­turn to the pa­per­work and end­less waits of pre-sin­gle mar­ket days, some worry about a longert­erm im­pact on the town.

“Tech­ni­cally, we’ll be as ready as we can be,” said Michael Voet of the lo­cal dock­work­ers’ union, in his of­fice on the water­front by the old fish­ing har­bour. “But Brits will surely be buy­ing less, that’s my big fear. Our mem­bers are paid by the day so that’s less money for them, and less to be spent here.”

Ev­ery­thing from wash­ing-up liq­uid to just-in-time en­gine parts – plus get­ting on for a mil­lion new cars a year – passes through Zee­brugge on its way to the UK, on 60-odd weekly sail­ings to such ports as Sheer­ness and Til­bury, Southamp­ton and Hull.

The Bel­gian port has one card up its sleeve: it han­dles mostly un­ac­com­pa­nied freight, so hopes to be less hit by any post-Brexit border for­mal­i­ties and checks than places such as Calais, which mainly process trucks with pa­per-in­ten­sive drivers.

“We’re try­ing to min­imise fu­ture dis­rup­tions; there’s ex­tra staff, a new plat­form to pre-process ev­ery­thing elec­tron­i­cally,” said the cus­toms of­fi­cial, who pre­ferred not to be named. “But it’s still a load of ex­tra work right now – and we don’t know ex­actly what we’re pre­par­ing for.”

On board the Pride of Bruges, which sets sail ev­ery evening from P&O’s Zee­brugge ter­mi­nal for a 12-hour voy­age to Hull, Bri­tish truck drivers were down­beat. “If things go back to any­thing like what they were be­fore, it’ll crip­ple the in­dus­try,” said Ian Vear, tak­ing a lorry-load of Bel­gian beer back to York­shire.

Vear, who has been driv­ing for 31 years, said truck­ers head­ing for the con­ti­nent be­fore 1993 had to “get our pa­pers in­spected and stamped and our tanks dipped – to see we weren’t

‘Brits will be buy­ing less, that’s my fear. Our mem­bers are paid by the day so it’s less money for them and less spent here’

Michael Voet

Zee­brugge dock­ers’ union

car­ry­ing too much fuel – at ev­ery border. A four-day job took eight.”

There were ad­van­tages, said Sam Camp­bell, car­ry­ing Nis­san car parts to Sun­der­land. “You’d get to Spain or Italy on a Fri­day and know you wouldn’t clear cus­toms till Sun­day. So, the beach … But then it could take you 10 hours to get through Dover. If that’s Brexit, I’d quit.”

Sev­eral had voted leave. “I felt more strongly about our bor­ders,” said Camp­bell. “And I never thought it would pass. Brexit could wreck my job, but it’s wrecked any­way. Just-in­time, you’re tracked ev­ery sec­ond of the way. And we can’t com­pete with Poles, Lat­vians, Ro­ma­ni­ans … They work for half pay, less.”

Doc Lock­yer, from Hull, now a job­bing driver af­ter run­ning his own haulage busi­ness for 30 years, was a lone op­ti­mist. “It’ll be all right even­tu­ally,” he in­sisted. “Pro­vided we adapt and use the tech­nol­ogy right, it can be done. Peo­ple are ex­ag­ger­at­ing the problems for their own agenda.”

Ten hours later, June Her­itage, 72, from Dar­ling­ton, was step­ping un­steadily down the gang­plank into a chill, damp Hull morn­ing. She, too, had voted leave: “Enough’s enough.” But she’d en­joyed her coach trip to Bruges Christ­mas mar­ket and couldn’t see Brexit chang­ing much. “Peo­ple will still want their fun, won’t they?” she said.

A blus­tery walk up the road at As­so­ci­ated Bri­tish Ports, which runs Hull and the three other Hum­ber ports – em­ploy­ing, di­rectly and in­di­rectly, 23,000 over­whelm­ingly lo­cal peo­ple – head of cor­po­rate af­fairs Dafydd Wil­liams agreed.

“The is­sue,” Wil­liams said, “is go­ing to be goods, not peo­ple.” He saw one pos­si­ble up­side from Brexit for Hull: con­tainer traf­fic grew 16% last year, with sail­ings up from five to 15 a week – part of a no­tice­able Brexit-driven shift in trade from south­east­ern ports, such as Dover, to the north-east.

“The longer sail­ing times used to put peo­ple off,” Wil­liams said. “But if you’re go­ing to be stuck in a queue at Calais or Dover...” Per­sis­tent un­cer­tainty, and the pos­si­ble earth­quake of no deal, were still a worry, but the Hum­ber ports were “cau­tiously op­ti­mistic. We’re in­vest­ing, and we’ll deal with what­ever comes.”

Among ABP’s in­vest­ments was, jointly with Siemens, a hefty punt on £310m Green Port Hull, mak­ing wind-tur­bine blades and ser­vic­ing off­shore wind­farms. Juer­gen Maier, the Ger­man com­pany’s UK chief ex­ec­u­tive, and an out­spo­ken re­mainer, has just backed Theresa May’s deal as pro­vid­ing “cer­tainty af­ter two very dif­fi­cult years”.

Towns­peo­ple re­main, per­haps in­evitably, di­vided. Hull, Bri­tain’s third most de­prived lo­cal au­thor­ity, voted 66% for Brexit in 2016 – even if re­cent polling sug­gests that num­ber has fallen sub­stan­tially and at least one of the city’s three Labour-held con­stituen­cies would now sup­port re­main.

On Jame­son Street, op­po­site the rail­way sta­tion, Rob Bate­son, an IT worker for a Scan­di­na­vian-owned tim­ber im­porter, said the vote was a “his­toric mis­take. This is a port city, we grew by trad­ing with Europe. I can al­ready see it in my job – it’s go­ing to throw a mas­sive span­ner in the works.”

But Steve Todd, a re­tired welder, said the only mis­take had been to “not get out straight away, and sort the shit out after­wards. Now we’re stuck.”

And Aida Hes­keth, a pay­roll as­sis­tant for a temp agency, said none of her rea­sons for vot­ing leave had gone away. “We’re be­ing dic­tated to, there’s too many Euro­peans here, and it’s not right,” she said. “We need to get out.”

Zee­brugge’s ex­ports to the UK range from wash­ing-up liq­uid to car parts

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