At Antwerp’s sprawling port, the ripples from Brexit are already apparent.
The Belgian port saw trade with the U.K. drop 5 percent in 2017, the first decline in five years. Against that backdrop, Antwerp — described by Napoleon as a “pistol pointed at the heart of England” — is seeking a representative in the U.K.’s industrial heartlands.
“We investigated, talked to companies left and right and found that uncertainty around Brexit is a big issue,” Luc Arnouts, the port’s International Relations and Networks director, said. Those conversations also “gave us the idea that Brexit could be an opportunity as well as a danger.”
Brexit is the latest twist in the port’s occasionally spiky relationship with Britain — it owes much of its early development to Napoleon who planned to make it a base for an invasion of England that never came. Now, along with other ports across the region, it will be on the front lines of Brexit — around half of British trade is with the European Union, much of it passing through ports such as Antwerp.
Twelve months after the U.K. triggered the two-year process of its withdrawal from the EU, the two sides haven’t yet gotten round to starting trade talks in earnest. Still, the European Sea Ports Organisation is laying out the implications of the breakup. Brexit risks “turning ports into bottlenecks,” it said in a March paper. “The vast amount of goods that are traded between the EU and U.K. could be held up in ports and on the access routes to ports, ultimately leading to congestion in or around those ports,” it noted.
About fifty miles away from Antwerp, Rotterdam port officials estimate that extra checks resulting from Brexit may take 1 to 2 minutes per truck. Multiply that by between 200 and 400 trucks per ferry and one could be looking at delays of between 3.5 and 13 hours, with 200 trucks in a stretch about as long as 2.5 miles (4 kilometers).
Yet when it comes to preparations, ports are taking very different approaches. Rotterdam is planning for the worst possible outcome, Allard Castelein, its chief executive, told reporters in February.
“We will prepare for possible implications of a Brexit, which will be significant I am afraid,” Castelein said. “Containers, the agricultural sector, all of that is extremely vulnerable.”
Castelein, for example, estimates about 90 extra vets will be needed for animal controls. But vets are hard to find, prompting Rotterdam to appeal for less-qualified staff to be allowed to carry out some checks.
At Antwerp, officials at the port, where about 150,000 workers are sprinkled over an area equivalent to about 20,000 football pitches, take a different view. The port’s Brexit conversations in the wake of last year’s decline led officials to spy an opportunity.
Antwerp’s strategic importance has always been clear — in 1914, Winston Churchill arrived to help defend the city as it was besieged by Germans.
About 8 percent of business at Europe’s second-biggest port is linked to the U.K. — mostly chemicals, oil derivatives and consumer goods going to and from British ports. Many Asian companies that have a European distribution center in the U.K. say they now may need a second one in Europe to avoid tariffs or red tape, Arnouts said.
As Europe’s most central seaport, Antwerp is surrounded by a vast web of roads and railroads that allow firms reach into the continent’s heartland. The Belgian city could be a potential candidate for such distribution centers.
Preparing for Disruption
Before the summer, Antwerp hopes to have in place a U.K. representative, joining 13 others around the globe. “These people promote the port, tell us what’s going on, talk to companies,” he said. “They are our eyes and ears. With Brexit, we need that more than ever in the U.K.”
Elsewhere, ports are taking a wait-and-see approach. Germany’s Bremen, for example, has no contingency plan for Brexit.
“As the English still aren’t very sure themselves what preparations they want to make for an eventual Brexit, we are also in a very poor position to prepare,” said Andreas Hoetzel, a spokesman for BLG Logistics Group, which operates at the shipping hub. “Why should we add more workers to the port? We won’t get more cargo.”
Antwerp says it can handle any minor disruption through extending a pre-clearance system. It’s the other side that worries him, Arnouts said.
“With a hard Brexit, one can expect serious delays in handling due to import formalities, especially in roll-on roll-off ports, ” he said. “Solutions will have to be found. ”