Zeebrugge — Uncertainty over Britain’s departure from the EU is worse than the prospect of a “no-deal Brexit” just days away, according to the head of the port of Zeebrugge.
The Belgian port, half of whose cargo exports head to Britain, has hired more than 140 new customs officers and paved more than 500 new parking spots for trucks to ready itself a Britain’s crash out of the EU, which could happen on Friday.
“The worst-case scenario is already, today, that we don’t know what happens. It is always better to know what will happen when than not to know,” Joachim Coens, the port’s president, told Reuters, as fog shrouded ship movements around the docks.
EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request for a Brexit extension until the end of June.
Coens said the port has set up an online database to allow exporters to notify terminal operators of the arrival of their cargo in the port. Under a no-deal exit, Britain would become a third country outside the EU, requiring every product to be declared.
The port has sent multiple warnings to companies trading with Britain via Zeebrugge, instructing them to have the necessary documents and comply with rules governing trade with third countries. However, this is a six-step process that can take more than 90 days to complete, so exporters due to ship after Friday should have applied at the start of January to ensure their products move without delay.
The port, north of the city of Bruges, plans to block exports without the correct documents. In the case of truck drivers, it will either tell them to park until the certification comes through or merely send them away.
Coens said he was not sure many companies were prepared for a no-deal Brexit, but that he did not expect major chaos at the port if Britain crashes out. Many exporters would be forced to delay shipments until appropriate papers came through.
The port chief said he expected 10% to 20% of planned exports arriving at the port would have problems in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
Zeebrugge also handles about 1.1-million passengers a year, from cruise liners and a ferry to the English port of Hull.
Belgium, with a small, open economy and close ties to Britain, is expected to be among the EU members hardest hit by Brexit. Leuven University has estimated that a no-deal Brexit could lead to 28,000 job losses in Belgium in the country.