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Uncertainty soars in final month of Brexit transition

AFP logo AFP 12/1/2020 AFP
Michael Gove wearing a suit and tie: Michael Gove's Cabinet Office handling Brexit preparations said there would likely be 'short-term disruption at the border' © Ben STANSALL Michael Gove's Cabinet Office handling Brexit preparations said there would likely be 'short-term disruption at the border'

With just a month until Britain's post-Brexit future begins and trade talks with the European Union still deadlocked, the UK government on Tuesday urged firms to prepare as it scrambles to finish essential infrastructure.

a group of people on a beach near a body of water: Outside Ashford, strategically situated on the approach to the busy port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, construction of a new customs clearance centre and lorry park is being ramped up © BEN STANSALL Outside Ashford, strategically situated on the approach to the busy port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, construction of a new customs clearance centre and lorry park is being ramped up

But uncertainty is widespread over what arrangements will be in place when the country's new chapter starts on January 1 and the precise approach to trade rules the government will adopt.

Works continue late into the night under floodlights at the vast site, where Europe-bound lorries will be processed post-Brexit © BEN STANSALL Works continue late into the night under floodlights at the vast site, where Europe-bound lorries will be processed post-Brexit

In a letter to businesses, ministers have warned time is running out before the end-of-year deadline for them to finalise preparations and avoid potential disruption.

Britain formally left the EU in January, nearly four years after a referendum on membership that divided the nation and paralysed its politics.

But it remains bound by the bloc's rules until 2021 under the terms of its divorce.

Negotiations on a free trade deal, which continue in London this week, have been stalled for months and are running out of time.

The government insists Britain will prosper with or without an agreement.

"Regardless of the outcome of our negotiations with the EU, there are guaranteed changes that businesses must prepare for now," said senior minister Michael Gove. "There is no time to lose."

- 'What Brexit means' -

On the outskirts of Ashford, a town in southeast England strategically situated on the approach to the busy port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, construction of a new customs clearance centre and lorry park is being ramped up.

Locals say works continue late into the night under floodlights at the vast site, where Europe-bound lorries will be processed post-Brexit and trucks will also be able to wait.

But how many will eventually use the facility -- which borders the historic villages of Sevington and Mersham -- and how long they will remain there remains unclear. 

The government has released little information about the site, one of 10 lorry parks planned around the UK which will be built using £470 million ($630 million, 523 million euros) earmarked for post-Brexit "inland infrastructure".

That has left locals in this once-quiet corner of Kent, where 59 percent of people backed Brexit in 2016, increasingly unnerved. 

"There is a lot of concern about the unknown," said Mersham resident Sharon Swandale, of the Village Alliance, set up more than a decade ago to inform its approximately 300 households about local development.

"If you know what Brexit's about then you're a lot more informed than we are. The problem that we have is that we don't know what Brexit means, we don't know what's going to happen."

The site has for years been earmarked for potential use as a large-scale logistical and warehousing hub, so people see the new facility as "the lesser of two evils", Swandale added.

"It's more trying to make the best of what we've got," she said, noting villagers would welcome compensation for any drop in the value of their properties.

In nearby Sevington, where the facility borders the centuries-old St Mary's church, a middle-aged couple who came to see the construction first-hand offered a more blunt assessment.

"We're not very happy about it. But what can we do?" said one woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

- 'Short-term disruption' -

Brexit supporters narrowly won the argument for leaving the EU in 2016 with a claim this would restore Britain's control over its borders.

But there are fears the imminent departure from the bloc's single market and customs union after nearly 50 years could cause chaos at ports and logistics hubs.

Businesses have complained of inadequate preparations and contingency planning, with accusations that ministers are underestimating the sheer scale of the challenge ahead.

Deal or no deal, increased red tape in the form of customs declarations and permits will replace largely seemless transportation of goods to and from the EU.

Gove's Cabinet Office department, which is in charge of Brexit preparations, conceded Tuesday the changes "will likely mean that there is short-term disruption at the border".

But it said a newly launched Border Operations Centre, to be manned around the clock, would help deliver "the world's most effective border by 2025".

The facility will utilise software to gather information about the flow of goods and passengers in real time, as well as analyse historical trends and have predictive capability.

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