Will UK walk the talk on shipping when the curtain falls on Brexit?

UK Chamber of Shipping hopes the government will streamline the ship registry, channel more cash into seafarer training and generally enhance the maritime sector — but concerns remain for ferry companies

My local cinema had a live filming from London’s National Theatre of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known play, Hedda Gabler. An exhilarating production was streamed worldwide — including Melbourne, Australia — so you may catch these events wherever you are.

Hedda Gabler is one of the Norwegian playwright’s great works from the end of the 19th century but given a modern setting by the National Theatre.

Actor Ruth Wilson gives full vent to the fury of an unhinged Hedda locked in a marriage she does not want.

Given I saw it just before Brexit was triggered through Article 50, I found myself substituting Hedda for our island’s mythical female leader, Britannia.

In my scenario, a slightly deranged Britannia finally (and misguidedly) wants to escape from what she sees as a loveless relationship with the European Union (EU).

The stage show is over but Brexit is live. What next for UK maritime industries?

There has been much opining over the past nine months since the referendum vote about the pros and cons of Brexit.

Much of what we have heard from the wider business community has been concern, although the impact on both the UK and global economy has been muted — if not quite positive.

A change of president in the US — and possibly Brexit — have helped produce a stock market boom. The Donald Trump bump on the back of promises to cut taxes and rebuild infrastructure has countered the expected collapse in confidence following warnings about the rise of nationalism and protectionism putting a brake on further moves to globalisation.

Equally, the fall in the price of sterling against the dollar has helped boost income for the likes of shipbroker Clarksons, although it has raised the cost of physical imports.

The maritime world has generally been quite relaxed and seen that an independent Britain could lose but also win, not least from escaping some of the red tape emanating from Brussels.

Could the UK, for instance, step aside EU plans to force shipowners to enter the carbon Emissions Trading Scheme from 2021? It is unclear how such a manoeuvre would work in practice and “going it alone” would be at odds with the wider argument that shipping needs global regulation and solutions drawn up and enforced through the International Maritime Organization.

Brexit also offers potentially a symbolic break with past ways of doing things that are not working so well. The UK Chamber of Shipping is hoping the government will feel more inclined to make the ship registry more user friendly, channel a bit more cash into seafarer training and generally ensure the maritime sector is enhanced as part of prime minister Theresa May’s new industrial strategy.

The UK government has a good record of talking, but walking that talk is something else. The industrial strategy sounds good but has almost no tangible action points.

There is discussion going on about how to streamline the ship registry, not least through creating a stand-alone, government-owned company or organisation.

Currently, the registry is bureaucratic and slow-moving under its existing structure as part of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency.

The letter going to Brussels on Article 50 is one thing but what about negotiations of the actual exit deal and fears of a “hard Brexit”?

That would be Britain crashing out of the EU with no new trading deal in place, leaving the UK out of the single market and customs union, with all the problems for moving goods and people to and from Britain. That is an alarming prospect for the ferry sector, which handles 40% of the country’s trade.

Dover now sees 17% of UK trade — or £120bn ($150bn) per year — and is just not equipped to handle lorries parked up, waiting for every single piece of new post-Brexit paperwork to be signed off so that goods can be consigned to the continent. The same bureaucratic nightmare would be happening at the other end, bringing Calais to a standstill. Then there are fears about where new skilled foreign staff could be found at a time of shortages. Every company will tell you it is time consuming and costly to bring in non-EU staff at present.

Meanwhile, you can see other City institutions — such as the banks — beginning to hedge their bets by moving staff to Europe.

The decision by Lloyd’s of London to open an EU office on the continent is a potent symbol of change.