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Brexit: Ministers to hold emergency no-deal meeting with business

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LONDON — The UK government is due to hold emergency talks with industry leaders today after discovering that the country doesn’t have the right pallets to continue exporting goods to the European Union if it crashes out without a deal next month.

Pallets are wooden or plastic structures which companies use to transport large volumes of goods. Under strict European Union rules, pallets arriving from non-member countries must be heat-treated or cleaned to prevent contamination, and marked to confirm they meet a series of EU rules.

Most pallets currently used by British exporters do not conform to these rules meaning that British export business could potentially grind to a halt next month in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

DEFRA last week confirmed to industry leaders that the United Kingdom will not have even close to enough EU-approved pallets for companies to use for exporting to the EU after a potential no-deal exit.

This means that UK companies would be in competition for a small number of pallets which meet EU rules, while those that missed out would be forced to wait for new pallets, which could take weeks to be ready.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has arranged for a conference call with various figures to take place on Tuesday to discuss the alarming pallet shortage, with just 31 days until Brexit day on March 29.

“It is the tiny, procedural, mundane-seeming stuff that will absolutely trip people up,” one industry figure briefed by Theresa May’s government told BI, adding that the country was “not even remotely ready” for no-deal.

Affected industry figures who were scheduled for talks with the government said they were baffled as to why it took ministers so long to realise the dearth of pallets, given that they are such a basic feature of cross-border trade.One business figure told BI: “The point of transition was that it provided the two years we needed to get ready. Now we are trying to get ready in a few weeks. What sort of lunatic would do that?”

They added that DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove had recently “tried to rally” other government ministers to realise the myriad problems posed by a possible no-deal scenario, with new issues arising for manufacturers on a daily basis.

The UK government has not responded to BI’s request for comment.

A forklift truck moves wooden pallets at the Port of Southampton on February 10, 2019 in Southampton, England.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Senior figures in the UK’s food and drink industry have warned that one-in-eight companies could go out of business if the UK leaves the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and defaults to World Trade Organisation rules.

May is under intense pressure to guarantee against no-deal by extending the Article 50 negotiating period and delaying the UK’s exit from the EU. Senior EU figures are reportedly considering a delay of up to 21 months.

On Wednesday, swathes of Conservatives MPs, including some Cabinet ministers, are set to vote for an amendment which would give MPs the power to force an Article 50 extension if May doesn’t have an approved deal by March 13.

The prime minister on Monday said she was “focused” on leaving the EU on March 29 as planned.

“A delay in this process doesn’t deliver a decision in Parliament [and] it doesn’t deliver a deal,” she said at a meeting of world leaders in Egypt.

“What it does is precisely what the word delay says, it just delays the point in which we come to that decision.”

However, reports later in the day suggested that the prime minister was preparing to present the House of Commons with a clear opportunity to stop no-deal and delay Brexit, amid threats of mass ministerial resignations.

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