Three quarters of UK hauliers face being shut of the EU if there is no Brexit trade deal, sparking fresh fears about shortages of food and other goods.
Permits would be made available for only 2,088 businesses from January, a trade group is warning – a massive drop on the 8,348 that were registered for journeys last year.
The Freight Transport Association (FTA), said companies, already under financial strain because of coronavirus, needed a solution to be found within weeks, as it prepares for its “Christmas peak”.
But the Brexit talks remain deadlocked, with little chance of an agreement by the end of October deadline without a breakthrough when they resume this week.
The UK would then be forced to rely on a fixed number of permits through the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) scheme – and would receive only 2,088.
Sarah Laouadi, the FTA’s European policy manager, said the situation emphasised the vital task of “securing a free trade agreement with the EU”.
“If you learn whether you have the right to continue operating as a company on Dec 28 and the only fallback plan is the ECMT system, which requires applications and allocations for permits, it will be too late,” she warned.
The Department for Transport (DfT) said it was “optimistic that an agreement can be reached”, but referred to protecting only “the substantial flow of international haulage”.
Ministers have announced £705m for carrying out post-Brexit trade checks, including building 12 lorry parks – five in Kent alone – to hold vehicles delayed at Dover and other ports.
But they have been accused of downplaying previously-acknowledged dangers from a no-deal Brexit, including food, fuel and medicine shortages.
Now the ECMT scheme is poised to add to those headaches, with the DfT charged with allocating the permits after a total is decided at EU level.
When a no-deal Brexit loomed last year, the hauliers who made the most cross-Channel journeys were prioritised, which downgraded trade between Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
If the same model is used, businesses crossing the Irish Sea might need to reroute, disrupting supply chains, the FTA warned.
Without a trade deal, bilateral agreements might have to be struck with individual member states, but Ms Laouadi warned this would be slow and that “a patchwork of rules would be a nightmare to navigate”.
It would be especially cumbersome for UK businesses operating in more than one EU state after crossing the Channel, she added.
Alternatively, the EU could grant temporary market access to UK hauliers for nine months, but this was “not a sustainable, long-term solution”, Ms Laouadi said.
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