Britain Considers Government Fleet to Offset Brexit's Impact

The Port of Dover, the UK's premier cross-channel ro/ro freight port (file image)

Published Oct 24, 2018 12:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

According to reports, UK transport secretary Chris Grayling is making contingency plans for the government to enter the business of cross-channel shipping in the event of a "no-deal Brexit." 

The plan, dubbed "Government Owned or Operated Logistics," or GOOL, would see the UK purchase or charter merchant vessels or convert some of its own naval vessels in order to ensure the arrival of critical goods from the continent, including consignments of medicine. It would be activated in the event of an alarming development: the possibility that after Brexit, French customs checks cut down import freight shipments via Dover and the Channel Tunnel by 85 percent or more. 

The newly-formed fleet would allow Britain to utilize more of its seaports to supplement existing cross-channel ro/ro terminals, which are considered particularly vulnerable to congestion under a "no deal" Brexit customs regime. 

“It’s the kind of stuff governments do in time of war . . . it is as serious as that," one minister briefed on the proposal told ITV. 

UK mariners' union Nautilus International questioned the viability of the plan. “Ministers must be living on another planet if they seriously believe they can find a fleet of suitable ships to keep the country supplied," said the union's general secretary, Mark Dickinson, in a statement Wednesday. “There’s also little room for manoeuver in switching ships to other routes, as there are severe limitations on the ports and associated infrastructure capable of handling the intensity of vessel traffic."

Dickenson noted that Britain had difficulty putting together a fleet of just 50 merchant ships to support its operations in the Falklands conflict, even though the British fleet was three times larger than it is today. “The long-term decline of the British Merchant Navy and UK maritime skills means that we are dangerously reliant upon foreign ships - particularly flags of convenience, of dubious quality and usually crewed by poorly-paid seafarers," he warned. 

Dickenson urged the government to pursue an extension for the Brexit withdrawal process to allow more time to negotiate with the EU on arrangements for post-Brexit trade. He also repeated a longstanding recommendation for Britain to invest in the civilian-crewed Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and to consider establishing a fleet of UK-flagged reserve ships, comparable to the U.S. Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Force.