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Spectre of massive cargo snarls at Dover haunts post-Brexit Britain

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At Dover, within 8 minutes, trucks can normally disembark, move out of the port and onto the highway. But even a modest, two-minute delay in processing could cause a 27km-long jam.

Dover, England

TRUCKS rumble non-stop through Britain's busiest ferry port, one every few minutes, some headed for France, others arriving here in Dover, where they trundle along an elevated roadway that scales the town's striking white cliffs.

But a cloud is hanging over the ceaseless flow of cargo to and from continental Europe - and it is more than a fog blown in from the English Channel.

Of the thousands of trucks that use Dover each day, only a fraction are stopped by British officials. That is because both Britain and France are members of the European Union and of its customs union, which removes the need for border checks on most goods.

Yet when Britain quits the bloc, a process known as Brexit, all that could change, and the question of how, when - or whether - to abandon a European customs union has divided and paralysed the British leadership.

Most attention has focused on the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union. But for Britain's economy, Dover matters much more.

So vicious is the political infighting over what might happen here that there is talk of a snap general election, or a leadership challenge against Prime Minister Theresa May from her party's restive, hardline pro-Brexit faction, whose cheerleader, lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, has accused her government of "abject weakness".

Passions are inflamed because Brexit supporters see leaving the customs union as "a totemic embodiment of what it actually means to leave the European Union", said Simon Fraser, a former head of Britain's Foreign Office, now managing partner at Flint Global, a consultancy.

"They see the risk that Britain will leave the European Union legally, but stay within a customs union and so remain bound by European Union trading rules," he added.

Those who want to keep close ties with the bloc point to warnings that quitting a customs union could cause chaos at ports and cost firms more than US$25 billion a year.

Certainly, Mrs May could pay a high political price if she gets things wrong.

Here at Dover, within eight minutes, trucks can normally disembark, move out of the port and onto the highway - where most pass a Brexit-inspired mural by Banksy, depicting a worker chipping away at a star on the European Union flag.

Only around 2 per cent of trucks carry goods from outside the European Union. Those require a customs clearance, but that is done at separate centres away from the port and can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several days, said Richard Christian, head of policy and communications at the Port of Dover.

In the absence of the customs union, every truck would, in theory, be subject to such a close examination. Yet, even a modest, two-minute delay in processing truck arrivals could cause a 17-mile (27-kilometre) line of traffic, said Mr Christian. He recalled disruption along those lines after strikes that brought gridlock, leaving trucks waiting for hours on highways outside the port and on the other side of the English Channel in France.

"There were empty supermarket shelves and cars not being built; we know what happens when traffic can't move across the channel," he said.

Officially, Mrs May is committed to quitting Europe's customs union because continued membership would prevent Britain from striking independent trade deals - a primary selling point of the Brexiteers.

She favours a "customs partnership" under which Britain would collect tariffs for the European Union on many goods but would be able to strike some separate trade agreements. Though complex, this would keep Britain close to many economic rules and strictures of its biggest trading partner.

For that reason, it infuriates hardline Brexit supporters who want to break free and detach Britain from the orbit of Brussels.

Brexiteers prefer another plan called "max fac" - short for maximum facilitation - that accepts the need for customs controls but uses technology to keep checks light.

One recent pro-Brexit report called for national borders to become "less of a physical location, and more of a digital record", with import and export transactions routed through an online portal.

However, the "max fac" plan could take three years to introduce and add 20 billion pounds (S$35.5 billion) a year to businesses' bureaucratic costs, said Jon Thompson, head of Britain's tax collection agency.

The European Union, whose agreement is necessary for any plan, seems sceptical about both options, and experts doubt that technology for either will be ready by the end of a proposed standstill transition period under which Britain is to obey European Union rules until December 2020.

So, to the fury of some Brexit supporters, Mrs May has suggested that Britain could stay in a customs union with the European Union beyond 2020, if technological solutions to the Irish border problems have not been found by then.

Seen from Dover, the outline of a workable replacement for a customs union that can process the huge volume of cross-channel trade looks less visible than the French coast on a misty day.

Were all trucks to face customs checks - rather than the current 2 per cent - there would be no space for them in Dover's port, Mr Christian said. NYTIMES

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