Dutch prepare for ‘Millennium bug’ Brexit

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — The Netherlands is preparing for a Brexit that may never come.

One of the U.K.’s closest allies is spending millions of euros and hiring hundreds of people to get ready for a no-deal Brexit — which could still happen, either in a week or later on, despite the House of Commons voting to force Theresa May to seek an extension to Article 50.

“There is no alternative but to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told POLITICO in the pouring rain on the tarmac at Vlaardingen port, a truck terminal connected to the hulking Rotterdam dock complex.

Rotterdam is at the sharp end when it comes to links with Britain. Every year, some 40 million tons of goods flow through the port to and from the United Kingdom.

“The solution must come from London now” — Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok

That makes preparations key. Staffers are handing out Brexit information leaflets in 12 languages to the 1,500 trucks passing through the Vlaardingen terminal every day.

Blok was in town to make final inspections and meet with officials from the national police, custom authorities and food agencies. He said he remains hopeful a no-deal can be avoided but that the U.K. needs to set out a plan to secure an extension.

“The solution must come from London now,” he said.

That leaves the Dutch doing what they can, including training up to 900 new staff to handle customs checks. The Port of Rotterdam Authority last week said it would build five new parking areas across the port with space for 700 trucks to mitigate a Brexit congestion crunch. A new customs system — dubbed Portbase — aims to shift approvals online to speed up truck transit and will be mandatory for British truckers under a no-deal scenario.

40 million tons of goods flow through the port to and from the U.K. each year | Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

Jan Meijer, director of inspections at the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, has been recruiting veterinarians in Belgium and Central Europe to man new agricultural control checkpoints at the port.

“We already have a small shortage,” he said of staffing. “They need to learn Dutch, which is quite a difficult language. The first step is an 18-week intensive Dutch course so having them operational in time is quite a task.”

That isn’t the only problem. Jan Janse, district chief of the port police force, expects a spike in illegal migrants rushing to get into the U.K. before Brexit — although it isn’t clear why that would make much difference to their legal status.

“Not everyone is well-informed about Brexit and that also includes people smugglers,” said Janse. “Some of them think we have to go and do it before Brexit.”

They’ll have more opportunity to get to the U.K. because of the hundreds of trucks that are expected to be parked around the port, offering more opportunities for stowaways to smuggle aboard, he warned.

“We used to have such good cooperation with the U.K. Now that’s going to change” — Jan Janse, district chief of the port police force

Even crooks are affected.

Janse estimated that there are about 75 criminal organizations active across the port. A no-deal Brexit would end formal cooperation under the Europol treaty, making it more difficult for his officers to coordinate with their British counterparts on everything from the illegal export of cigarettes to seizing cocaine smuggled through the port.

“We used to have such good cooperation with the U.K. that we didn’t need to have any officers there, there was never any need. Now that’s going to change,” Janse said. New liaison officers have already been sent to London.

It’s not all downside for the Netherlands. Thanks to Brexit, Amsterdam is now the new headquarters of the European Medicines Agency, and dozens of other companies are decamping from Britain to the Netherlands.

But the impact on a tight-knit trading relationship will be large: Government analysis estimates the Netherlands will take a €2.3 billion economic hit over the next five years if Britain crashes out of the bloc without a deal.

“It could be like the millennium bug again” — Jan Janse, district chief of the port police force

“We may benefit from Brexit but the disadvantages way outweigh the advantages,” said Blok. He pointed to the truck trailers lined up at dockside and added: “You can see how close the Dutch economy is to the U.K. economy.”

All that spending and hiring could be for nothing if London politicians find a way of dodging a no-deal Brexit. Meijer, whose agency has already spent €10 million to boost staffing, said he won’t mind the headache of having to redeploy hundreds of newly trained veterinarians if it means the U.K. ends up staying put.

The danger is not doing enough to prepare, said Janse, who compared the Dutch efforts to the race in 1999 to prepare computer systems for the year 2000.

“It could be like the millennium bug again,” he said. “A lot of work, a lot of preparation, but in the end everything is OK.”

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