November 2nd 2020

Baseball legend Yogi Berra may not have been talking about Brexit, but he certainly could have been.

First there was March last year, then there was October last year. On each occasion we were told to prepare for a No Deal Brexit only to be led back from the cliff at the last moment.

This time, however, it's for real. The transition phase easing the UK's departure from the EU will finish at the end of this year. There will be no retreat.

What we don't know, is what sort of deal we are going to get - if we get one at all. But one thing's for sure, deal or no deal, this will not be a soft Brexit: it will be more iron plate than feather pillow.

Those who have studied the detail have a pretty good idea of what we are going to have to cope with. The problem is that hardly anyone else has the capacity to think about this right now.

The Covid crisis has presented something so fundamentally ground-breaking and immediate that nothing else, even our imminent departure from our biggest trading block, has the ability to cut through.

As one of the current buzz phrases in government would have it - no-one has the bandwith for anything else except Covid at the moment.

To put it crudely, the choice for business is this: cope with a big crisis right now or a smaller crisis in a few months. Understandably, the big crisis wins, every time.

And that is precisely why there is an air of quiet desperation (occasionally carrying with it the faint whiff of panic) pervading the corridors of power in Holyrood and Westminster.

Ministers, officials, special advisers and assorted civil servants can see what's coming. They can picture the drone footage shot by TV news crews, showing the apparently endless queues of trucks parked up waiting to get across the Channel.

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They can envisage the arguments and wrangles over paperwork, tempers fraying as exasperated exporters try to reason with intransigent border guards.

They can see trucks returning with consignments undelivered and, crucially for our sector, they can picture the lorry loads of fish sitting outside the huge seafood market at Boulogne-sur-Mer, waiting the best part of a day for it to re-open, having been too late for its short opening hours on the day they arrived.

As has always been the case when thinking about Brexit, the issues for the Scottish farmed salmon sector are those linked to the non-tariff barriers.

By that we mean extra paperwork, red tape and bureaucracy all leading to confusion, mistakes, queues and delays.

And it is almost certain to be the delays which cause our members the biggest problems.

Our exports to the continent are - for the moment at least - remarkably efficient. Our fish can be harvested in the early hours of one day and be at the market in Boulogne-sur-Mer the next.

But the time margins at the French seafood market are tight so even a couple of hours extra in getting across the Channel can means a whole day's delay in getting the fish to market.

Throw in drivers' hours (an extra couple of hours edging along in slow traffic will put many drivers over their statutory limit), customs declarations, food labelling confusion and new pallet regulations and its easy to see why this is unlikely to be either smooth or easy.

Brexit was always going to present our sector with challenges but there is more at stake now. Because of Covid and the impact it has had on long-haul exports, the French and European markets are more important than ever.

That is why the SSPO has ramped up its efforts over Brexit in the last few weeks and will do so exponentially over the final quarter of this year.

Covid conference calls into government have become Brexit calls, Coronavirus meetings are now end-of-transition meetings with ministers and officials everywhere trying desperately to sort out the myriad of potential problems in advance of the immoveable December 31 deadline.

One of the key issues is the prioritisation of seafood consignments. The indications we are getting are that we will be successful in securing that.

We expect a system of categorisation to be put in place for traffic heading for the Channel and that our trucks will be given priority, simply because the loads are perishable.

But what we don't know is how many other sectors will also given priority as well. Too many and the system will grind to a halt, too few and there will be legal challenges and disgruntled hauliers switching into the priority lanes and taking their chances.

Then there's the issue of all the extra export health certificates that will be needed. There have been really helpful offers of support from Food Standards Scotland but will the new systems work? Will the new paperwork be accepted in the EU?

At the moment, nobody knows.

But if there's one silver lining for the Scottish salmon sector its that the hard Brexit deadline will arrive just after the Christmas rush. We can serve all our European customers with their festive produce and then aim to ease off in the immediate period after New Year.

For, if Covid has taught us anything, its how to adapt quickly and flexibly to rapidly changing markets.

It is almost certainly for that reason, if for no other, that Scotland's salmon farmers are more sanguine about Brexit now than they ever were before.

However bad it is, it can't be as tough as Covid - that's the general feeling.

There will be problems, there will be delays, there will be queues and there will be confusion over paperwork. Some fish won't get to market on time, some fish won't get to market at all and there will be anger, frustration and confrontation.

But, to turn to the great American sage Yogi Berra once again and his claim that the "future ain't what it used to be" - perhaps "Brexit ain't what it used to be" either.

Let's hope so.