The European Union yesterday published contingency plans likely to offer some short-term reassurance to international hauliers and PSV operators anticipating the end of the Brexit transition period in January, as eleventh-hour trade deal negotiations drag on.
The plans are designed to ensure that “basic connectivity” for road freight and passenger transport can continue for six months after the transition period ends if no deal is reached, provided that reciprocal arrangements are put in place in the UK for EU operators.
They were published amidst what the European Commission called “significant uncertainty” about whether an overall deal would be achieved. The UK prime minister Boris Johnson also warned yesterday of a “strong possibility” that no deal would be reached.
The UK government has said it will look “very closely” at the proposals, but according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), has already provided reassurances around a “six-month glidepath” in the event of a no-deal scenario, suggesting that it would likely adopt the necessary reciprocal measures.
If it did, the plans would permit UK operators to continue to access EU roads for six months without additional licence requirements, subject to certain conditions, and vice versa.
The measures, which would end after a fixed period in a no-deal scenario, would “mitigate some of the significant disruptions that would occur on 1 January in case a deal with the UK is not yet in place”, said the Commission.
They address concerns around severe limits on available ECMT permits for UK operators in 2021, applications for which closed in November.
Earlier this week, hauliers found out whether their applications had been successful.
“Right now there are just over 1,600 annual permits being allocated to meet applications for over 10,000 lorries,” reported RHA chief executive Richard Burnett, prior to the publication of the EU contingency plans.
“That’s not enough and the system cannot last indefinitely.
“The impact on these figures if UK hauliers have no alternative but to use ECMT permits will hit hauliers, businesses and consumers hard. The entire economy will suffer…
“The way we do business with the EU will change from 1 January. If UK hauliers still have to rely on a permit ‘lottery’ to access mainland Europe, the return on their business will not meet the investment… Many will, inevitably, throw in the towel.”
The EU’s contingency document for road and passenger freight echoed the RHA’s position that reliance on the ECMT quota system to cover EU/UK freight movements “does not currently constitute an adequate solution to ensure basic road freight transport connectivity immediately after the end of the transition period.”
“The carriage of goods by road between the UK and the [EU] member states is almost entirely in the hands of UK and EU road haulage operators,” the document continued.
“The loss by those operators of their right to provide road freight transport between the UK and the EU would therefore result in serious disruptions including in respect of public order.”
Likewise, the so-called Interbus Agreement on passenger transport: “covers only occasional services and is, therefore, inadequate to address the disruptions ensuing from the end of the application of EU law to and in the UK, given the high number of persons that would continue to seek to travel between the EU and the UK.”
It continued: “Cross-border coach and bus services between Ireland and the UK in respect of Northern Ireland are of particular importance for communities living in the border regions, in view of ensuring basic connectivity between communities inter alia as part of the Common Travel Area.
“No instrument exists that could address the need for coach and bus operators operating regular or special regular services to pick up and set down passengers in regions on the other side of the border. However, the economic viability of many cross-border services is at risk without the right to carry out cabotage operations.
“It is therefore appropriate for the EU to adopt temporary and time-limited contingency measures to mitigate such potentially disruptive effects for connectivity between the EU and the UK.”
Said the EC: “The proposed regulation, even though it aims to temporarily ensure basic connectivity for road freight and road passenger transport, lays down a flexible mechanism to ensure that EU road haulage operators and coach and bus service operators enjoy fair and equal opportunities to compete with UK road haulage operators and coach and bus service operators.
“A level playing field requires that, even after the end of the transition period, the UK continues to apply sufficiently high and comparable standards in the area of road freight and road passenger transport as regards: fair competition including the regulation of cartels, abuse of dominant position and mergers; the prohibition of unjustified government subsidies; the protection of workers and a high level of road safety; the protection of the environment; safety and security, or relating to the granting of licences to road operators or to the qualification, training and medical controls for professional drivers.”
The Commission emphasised that EU road operators must not be discriminated against in the UK as a result of the arrangement, either in law or in practice.
“The proposed regulation thus charges the Commission… with the task to monitor the conditions of competition between, on the one hand, EU road operators and, on the other hand UK road operators, and empowers it to adopt the necessary measures, by means of delegated acts, to ensure that those conditions remain level at all times.”
The road transport proposals do not cover Gibraltar, which is a British overseas territory.
Contingency arrangements for air transport have also been announced, as well as plans to ensure the Channel Tunnel will remain open beyond 1 January until alternative arrangements are in place.
Commenting, commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Negotiations are still ongoing. However, given that the end of the transition is very near, there is no guarantee that if and when an agreement is found, it can enter into force on time.
“Our responsibility is to be prepared for all eventualities, including not having a deal in place with the UK on 1 January 2021. That is why we are coming forward with these measures today.”
Sarah Laouadi, European policy manager at Logistics UK, formerly the Freight Transport Association, said: “Today’s announcement of contingency measures for road and air access for logistics operators for six months after the end of the transition period, if adopted in time, will come as a welcome safety net for logistics businesses which have been unable to plan for the future, due to a lack of certainty on whether and how they will be able to operate in three weeks’ time.
“However, six months is not a very long time in business, and for Logistics UK members, it is vital that negotiators return to the table to work out a free trade agreement between the UK and EU to ensure the security of their businesses and livelihoods in the years to come.”
The technical detail of the EU road haulage contingency plans can be found here.