December marks a crucial stage in the negotiations for Britain’s departure from the European Union, as we seek to move on from settling the terms of our leaving, to discussing our future trading relationship. We must remember though that whatever agreement is announced following the forthcoming European Council meeting, it does not come into effect until we leave the EU at the end of March 2019. Also, there does not need to be a formal date established for Brexit to take effect, as it automatically comes two years after we gave official notice of our intention to leave, by triggering the ‘Article 50’ process of withdrawal from the EU. It would require our agreement, and that of every other member state to change this in any way.
Last week, in the debate in the House of Commons on the Budget I raised the importance of preparing now for our future trading relationship with the rest of Europe, including investing in the physical infrastructure we might need at the border to keep goods and people moving freely. I want to see open free trade with Europe continue after we leave the EU, but we cannot wait until the last minute before putting in place alternative arrangements in case the rest of the EU does not agree.
In Kent, we live in the front line of our busiest road freight trading route, and anything that slows the movement of goods will cause delays and congestion on our roads. The Chancellor announced in the Budget a fund of £3billion which is there to provide the investment we need. This could include electronic systems to read and scan the registrations of vehicles that have pre-registered for customs clearance so that we can maintain a frictionless border without the requirement to stop and check every lorry. I also had confirmation from the Treasury last week that the £250million budget to create the Operation Stack relief lorry park is still there to be spent on this project, once new plans are brought forward. Whilst this was originally envisaged as a space that would be used to hold lorries waiting to leave the country, it could also provide the additional capacity we need should there be any delays in the movement of freight because of customs checking. Last Friday I was in Newry in Northern Ireland to take part in the BBC Radio 4 ‘Any Questions’ programme where we discussed issues very similar to those we face here in Kent. In Ireland too, there is a requirement to keep the three hundred mile border open to allow trade to flow. Much of the road freight that comes from Ireland to go to continental Europe comes through Kent, and again we like them, want this to be able to travel on freely to France, Holland and Belgium without unnecessary processing delays, because they have passed through the UK. There are already systems in place that can show that a lorry has not been opened since it left its home jurisdiction, which should make any such delays unnecessary.