The Port of Zeebrugge was also hard hit by the coronavirus. Thanks to the efforts of many people, our port was nevertheless able to remain operational. And despite the economic downturn, we were able to achieve numerous successes in 2020.
The consequences of the coronavirus crisis were felt particularly in the handling of new cars, in which Zeebrugge is the world leader. In the second quarter, ro-ro traffic was down 35% compared to the second quarter of 2019. After a 13% decline in the third quarter, the fourth quarter demonstrated a 2.9% increase. As fewer cars were manufactured as well as sold, a whopping 26% fewer cars arrived at the port last year compared to 2019.
As the majority of ro-ro traffic is to and from the UK market, Brexit also had a negative impact on car traffic at the port. In the last months of the year, several UK companies purchased considerable stocks because they were concerned about rising prices in 2021.
The UK market excepted, we nevertheless achieved good ro-ro results on our connections to Ireland, Scandinavia and Southern Europe.
Of all our European sales markets, the UK was by far the largest until the end of 2020. Of an annual total of 47 million tonnes of goods handled, 35% was related to the UK market. Taking Brexit and the UK’s departure from the European customs union into consideration, Zeebrugge invested in regional diversification. This proved to be a successful strategy.
For the past fifteen years or so, we have been expanding our sphere of operations to new short-sea destinations, independently of the British market. Regions such as Ireland, Scandinavia, the Baltic region and the region up to the European borders in Turkey and Morocco are gaining in importance.
Stay or leave? Few soap operas have been as enthralling as Brexit in recent years. In Zeebrugge we have turned necessity into a virtue. How, despite everything, can we guarantee smoothly running trade operations with the UK? Meet our game changers.
The Brexit referendum, at the end of June 2016, set the tone for a potential disaster at the Port of Zeebrugge. At that point in time, the United Kingdom and Ireland were the port’s primary markets. Expressed in figures: approximately 50% of all traffic was generated to and from the UK market. The day after the “Leave” vote, the port authority launched four game changers to guide the port safely through every possible scenario. Even now that the Brits have left the European Union and the customs formalities are becoming more and more stringent, Zeebrugge is managing, thanks to these interventions, to keep its connection with the British market running smoothly.
The UK leaving the European customs union prompted us to strengthen our border checkpoint. Both customs and additional personnel of the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) work there. The latter are responsible for the inspection of foodstuffs to and from third countries, including the United Kingdom. CEO Tom Hautekiet: “The importance of the checkpoint has, of course, increased tremendously. Although traffic with the UK has fallen to a mere 35%, we still have to inspect 15-16 million tonnes of goods a year moving to and from the UK.”
Not all containers and goods are inspected at the checkpoint. On the basis of risk analysis, customs officers pick out specific shipments, such as European foodstuffs destined for the United Kingdom.
In 2020, the port launched RX/SeaPort, a digital platform that connects all players in the logistics chain. It allows users to seamlessly follow the supply chain. Customs formalities can also be handled through the platform. What was formerly done in Zeebrugge (and still is in other European ports) using pen and paper is now completely digital. “This platform had been in the making for some time, but Brexit has really set things in motion. The advantages are the ease of use, as well as the strong cooperation and the monitoring by now more than hundred users, consisting of both private companies and public services such as customs and the FAVV.”
Before Brexit, up to 80% of all goods for Ireland were transported through the UK land bridge. This trade line, with its various border inspection points, has now become particularly complex. This is why the Port of Zeebrugge has set its sights on direct connections with Ireland, and more specifically the ports of Dublin and Cork. Tom Hautekiet: “If you sail directly to Ireland, you will bypass the UK and stay within the European Union. This lets you avoid all the administrative red tape. There are several shipowners in Zeebrugge who are doing better than ever before because they are now sailing directly to Ireland.”
Against the backdrop of Brexit, the Port of Zeebrugge has been focusing more and more on unaccompanied goods. “The set-up is simple: a truck driver arrives at a terminal with his trailer or container, a dock worker drives that trailer aboard and then the cargo travels on to its destination unaccompanied (i.e. without a driver).” Without a driver, cargo can be transported faster and cheaper because the paperwork at the border inspection point is eliminated. The result is a stable supply chain. Additional advantages: the freight volume is higher than that of accompanied freight and consignments can be shipped during off-peak hours. “Moreover, you avoid any risk of contamination: a key advantage during the COVID crisis,” concludes Tom Hautekiet.
If Brexit is an obstacle course for a port like Zeebrugge, the race is certainly not over. Further tightening of customs formalities on the UK side is expected on 1 October 2021 and 1 January 2022. “The UK government may impose specific standards on our products, such as the required weight of a biscuit or the maximum noise level of a lawnmower,” says Tom Hautekiet. “But we will at least be able to integrate any new standards into the RX/SeaPort platform.”
“In the meantime, we also want to make familiarise UK companies with our approach. These days, they are inclined to use old routes through ports in the south of England, for example, whereas we could help them more efficiently with unaccompanied freight through ports on the east coast, such as Kingston upon Hull or Killingholme. Our port can also offer sectors with perishable goods, such as the fruit and vegetable industry, an alternative to the Channel Tunnel, where customs control causes traffic jams. Our revamped offering has reduced all obstacles to a minimum.”
The CSP-Zeebrugge terminal, the key success factor for the development of our global container links, recorded a 20% increase in traffic in 2020. CSP, short for Cosco Shipping Ports, is owned by the Cosco Group, a Chinese shipowner that became a majority shareholder in our terminal in 2017. Following on the success of the ports of Piraeus in Athens, Valencia and Bilbao, Cosco Group has the ambition to turn Zeebrugge into a regional hub. In 2020, a total of 700,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units, the designation for the dimensions of a sea container) were shipped annually. These growth figures bring the group ever closer to the terminal’s total capacity of 2 million TEU per year. Together with Cosco Group, we are investigating how we can help them realise their ambitions in Zeebrugge with the necessary infrastructure.
Our ties with China are also intensifying. An important leveraging effect is the investment of Shanghai Lingang Economic Development Group, a Chinese real estate developer that aims to realise its first project beyond Chinese borders in Zeebrugge. The group will be collaborating closely with the Cosco Group. In the Maritime Logistics Zone (a construction 120- hectare construction zone in the inner port), Lingang will be building a logistics park of 30 hectares, which will provide the deep-sea connection with China with a new impulse.
2020 saw an increase in deep-sea traffic due to the logistics-related challenges in the global container market, where high prices prevailed throughout the year as a result of the pandemic as well as congestion at ports such as Felixstowe (UK), Rotterdam and Antwerp in the autumn due to the pre-Brexit rush. Many ships were diverted to Zeebrugge at the last minute. Thanks to of the high degree of flexibility we can offer major shipping companies, we hope that this introduction will lead to new regular services in the future.