Although hauliers are beginning to adapt to customs changes, well-publicised problems remain with the movement of fresh goods. Customs officials in some EU member states are proving highly inflexible in the enforcement of border paperwork. Famously epitomised in the ‘welcome to Brexit’ sandwich incident, British and EU hauliers alike report that relatively minor errors result in the rerouting and return of whole consignments.
This enforcement, needless to say, is not simply the straightforward implementation of ‘the rules’. For one thing, the insistence on paper forms in the digital age is simply an anachronism. Blockchain and other technologies are already revolutionising consignments and bringing about efficiencies in the world of shipping.
For another, discretion exists in almost any customs system. Not to exercise it is therefore a choice, not an inevitability. Indeed, the only way to make the current Northern Irish Protocol work without inflaming the province’s tensions will essentially require the EU to look the other way against the overly-rigid enforcement of phytosanitary and other checks.
Difficulties on the Channel border, however, are unlikely to be alleviated unless Britain is more assertive in checking EU goods itself. The decision to suspend checks until June, while avoiding shortages in supermarkets, means that the UK has little leverage against this legalistic, ‘paper border’ zeal on the part of European customs agents. With the threat of difficulties for their own exporters, however, European governments may be more inclined to rein in their officials’ excesses.