Zeebrugge, Belgium - In the port of Zeebrugge, robot lift-trucks are working flat out to stockpile and ship Europe's biggest brands to UK supermarkets before the New Year Brexit deadline heralds new trade barriers.
Driverless vehicles hoist and stack pallet after pallet of wine, water and milk at a frenzied pace, readying it for ferry transport across the channel to Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's.
From January 1, the UK will be outside the EU single market and exporters will face a barrage of new regulations and checks that are expected to cause delays and shortages for British shoppers.
And if the ongoing post-Brexit trade talks between Britain and the European Commission fail to reach agreement in the next two weeks, a return to trade tariffs will push prices up.
Authorities on both sides of the new divide insist they are ready for the shock, but businesses like the ECS-2XL logistics platform in Zeebrugge have not stood by waiting for instructions.
For the past 18 months the firm, which runs a depot as large as 10 football fields close to the port serving UK destinations, has been asking suppliers for details on the value of shipments -- to calculate tariffs.
"We've been running after them," says Charlotte Danneels, one of the site's managers. "We really had to insist on them being in order.
"As late as last week they were saying 'There'll be a deal, you don't need all that.' That's starting to change," she told AFP.
Between 250 and 300 suppliers, including huge brands like energy drinks from Red Bull and bottled water from Danone, use the 70,000 pallet Zeebrugge depot to supply seven leading UK supermarket chains.
The run up to Christmas would normally be a busy period anyway -- after 47 years inside the union, British consumers are fond of all manner of continental treats with their holiday meals.
And the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed pubs and restaurants, has driven more families on both sides of the straits of Dover to cook more at home, further driving up demand.
But after a half-century of close economic integration, the new challenge of Brexit is more of a leap in the dark.
The Belgian company has even contacted retired customs officers to seek advice on how shipping used to work before the European Union's single market reduced bureaucracy and opened borders.
But the Belgians are not sure that their British customers are entirely ready.
Danneels told AFP that British supermarket bosses have been slow to name a point person to liaise with continental suppliers over the changes associated with Brexit.
- Spot check -
The stakes are high for Zeebrugge: 40 percent of the port's traffic is with the UK -- 17 of 46 million tonnes of freight in 2019 -- and the Belgian side doubts its partner has the administrative capacity to absorb the shock of its decision to go it alone.
"They don't have enough staff and their electronic system isn't ready to manage the number of transactions that we estimate we'll need," said Patrick Van Cauwenberghe, commercial relations manager of the port authority.
Zeebrugge -- which developed rapidly in the 1980s to become the world's leading port for new car exports -- is the maritime face of the medieval city of Bruges, which now lies further inland due to the silting of waterways.
The city has a long commercial relationship with the British Isles, having been the port of arrival of British wool since the 13th century.
But Belgium's small and medium-sized firms, some of them already suffering a coronavirus crunch, are gloomy about post-Brexit relations with their oldest partners.
The Belgian customs service contacted 7,000 companies to offer them a streamlined trusted trader structure to facilitate business with Britain -- few took up the offer.
"Exporting and importing, that takes up time with administrative work," said customs manager Kristian Vanderwaeren, warning that a spot check on a single container could delay it by 90 minutes.
By Matthieu Demeestere