On the cliff-edge: Dover faces prospect of no-deal Brexit chaos

Fears over future of the UK's gateway to Europe escalate as Brexit uncertainties continue.

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    The port at Dover handles about 17 percent of all UK trade in goods worldwide [David Child/Al Jazeera]
    The port at Dover handles about 17 percent of all UK trade in goods worldwide [David Child/Al Jazeera]

    Dover, United Kingdom - The port in Dover, Britain's gateway to Europe, is doing a roaring trade as usual.

    A procession of trucks - an estimated 10,000 of them pass through the south-easterly town every day - disembark from ferries and move quickly onwards towards their eventual destinations.

    But this could all be about to change - efficiency at Dover, which handles about 17 percent of all UK trade in goods worldwide, threatens to give way to gridlock.

    The UK's imminent departure from the European Union has prompted both local and national concern for the town's future.

    In particular, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit is raising alarms.

    "We have to look at the worst-case scenario," says 73-year-old resident and local councillor, Nigel Collor.

    "Dover is very much on a knife-edge."

    Fears over no-deal disruption

    A no-deal Brexit would see the United Kingdom go crashing out of the EU on March 29 next year - almost three years after it voted to leave the bloc - with no agreement on either the terms of its withdrawal or future trading relations.

    In Dover, which relies on seamless trade arrangements with Britain's EU partners, the threat of such a departure is palpable.

    "This town processes around 10,000 trucks a day, in and out of the port," says Collor.

    "If there are any delays whatsoever to that movement, it could be hugely detrimental."

    The UK voted to leave the EU in a June 2016 referendum, with 52 percent in favour of exiting the bloc [David Child/ Al Jazeera]

    About 99 percent of the trucks passing through the sprawling Dover port each day originate in the EU, according to government statistics, with the bloc's single market rules allowing virtually frictionless trade.

    It takes roughly two minutes for the authorities to clear trucks carrying goods to and from the EU, for example.

    But a no-deal Brexit may end such efficiency, forcing instead cumbersome customs checks and time-consuming regulatory barriers.

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    And that delay could prove to be costly.

    'Our motto: keep Dover moving'

    Government estimates say an additional two-minute hold-up per freight vehicle in Dover's port may cause tailbacks stretching up to 27km.

    Gridlock on that scale could have dire and wide-ranging consequences.

    "Our motto is to keep Dover moving … but you have to look at it sensibly. There could be people stuck while trying to get to shops, schools and hospitals," Collor says. 

    Nigel Collor worked at Dover port for decades prior to becoming a councillor [David Child/ Al Jazeera]

    His fears don't appear to be without foundation.

    Kent County Council, the regional authority, has suggested that traffic problems spawned by a no-deal Brexit could create a series of grim knock-on effects, including disruption to waste collection services and the transportation of dead bodies to post-mortem or storage facilities.

    UK Finance Minister Philip Hammond, meanwhile, has warned it could take at least two years to get Dover's infrastructure ready for a no-deal scenario.

    A Brexit bellwether

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    But if Dover is a bellwether case for possible outcomes of a no-deal Brexit, it is certainly not the only part of the UK that is projected to be negatively affected by such a divorce. 

    In fact, according to official estimates, the entire country would be worse off. 

    The Bank of England, the UK's central bank, has warned that leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement could cause the country's gross domestic product (GDP) to shrink by up to eight percent.

    The government, meanwhile, forecasts a potential economic slump of more than nine percent in a no-deal scenario.

    The International Monetary Fund, for its part, says leaving the EU in a disorderly fashion would have "substantial costs for the UK economy".

    UK's finance minister has warned it could take at least two years to get Dover ready for a no-deal Brexit scenario [David Child/ Al Jazeera]

    Experts say such bleak predictions are accurate and would play out alongside capital flight, widespread business closures and heightened unemployment. 

    "The impact of a no-deal Brexit would be very severe. The EU is the UK's main trading partner," Professor Aditya Goenka, chair in economics at the University of Birmingham, says.

    "If we look at the impact it could have on GDP within the UK … this is equivalent to the entire northwest, including the cities of Manchester and Liverpool, just shutting down," he adds.

    "This could be worse economically for the UK than the global financial crisis [of 2008]." 

    Accusations of fearmongering

    Others, however, argue that the warnings issued about no-deal's impact on Dover and other parts of the UK amount to little more than blatant fearmongering designed to derail the entire Brexit process.

    Debbie Lane, the 59-year-old owner of a local pub, is one.

    "Why would there be backlogs? Before we joined the EU, when we had customs and imports and exports clerks, things worked," Lane says.

    "No-deal is better than a deal where we are held to ransom by the EU again, which I do feel we have been. Locally, we don't benefit from the EU. Everyone just comes and goes straight through this town. Nobody stops here."

    Since joining the European Economic Community in 1973, Britain has intertwined itself with its European partners into a single market, which allows people, goods, services and money to move freely within the bloc in return for adherence to common rules and regulations.

    But critics such as Lane argue that has meant ceding too much sovereignty to the EU. Like her, many Dover residents feel aggrieved by Brussels' perceived influence and want out of its orbit.

    During the UK's June 2016 referendum, more than 62 percent of the area's voters opted to get out of the EU, 10 percent higher than the overall leave vote nationwide.

    Debbie Lane (pictured) says fears over Dover's post-Brexit future are exaggerated [David Child/ Al Jazeera]

    It isn't just a section of the local community casting aspersions over warnings about Dover's future should the UK fully sever ties with the EU, however.

    Julian Jessop, chief economist at the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank, has suggested that threats of "substantial disruption" at the town's port in the event of a no-deal Brexit are "exaggerated".

    Jessop says it is unlikely that most trucks arriving from the EU would straightaway be subject to the same checks as those from countries outside of the bloc for three reasons.

    Firstly, because laws don't necessarily demand so; secondly, UK and European authorities would pursue mutually beneficial economic cooperation; and finally, there would be a lack of manpower to carry out inspections on such a scale.

    'Uneasiness over the unknown'

    Disputes over how Dover would fare in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU form just one part of the wider Brexit discussions dominating public and political life in the UK.

    British Prime Minister Theresa May's proposed withdrawal deal, brokered after months of negotiations with EU leaders, has attracted vociferous criticism from across the political spectrum.

    PM Theresa May faces a parliamentary showdown over her proposed Brexit deal [File: Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

    If approved by the UK parliament in a crucial vote next week, the withdrawal agreement would end uncertainty over a possible no-deal departure.

    But the deal is likely to be roundly rejected, thereby continuing the uncertainty of the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

    In Dover, that unpredictability means more anxiety for Collor.

    "There is an uneasiness over the unknown ... Dover is going to get hit, somehow, it's just a matter of how we control the flow of traffic to keep the town going," he says.

    "We only want to know what's going to happen. You can't plan if you don't know what you're planning against."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News