Zeebrugge #brexitproof thanks to digitalisation drive

The free movement of goods and people within the European Union is something we have all previously taken for granted – and the existence of the customs union has been critical to the operations of freight carriers, logistics companies and ports. With intra-European traffic accounting for 76% of its business, the Port of Zeebrugge knows the benefits of a Europe without internal borders perhaps better than any other. But then came Brexit, and the news that the United Kingdom would be withdrawing from the European customs bubble. Suddenly, the ghost of past red tape, reams of paperwork and stamps of approval was back, haunting the offices of freight companies and ferry operators across Europe once more.

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With a market share of 38%, cargo destined for the United Kingdom is one important source of revenue for the Port of Zeebrugge; there are seventy scheduled services a week connecting Zeebrugge to various destinations in the UK. This cargo – primarily made up of unaccompanied freight – is transported to and from the British Isles in line with the customer's specific requirements. It's crucial that this beating heart of European logistics continues to operate. Flooding the system with new customs formalities could have serious consequences: The flow of goods could be delayed or even come to a complete standstill.


To prevent this scenario, the port authority and APZI (the Association Port of Zeebrugge Interests) put their heads together to work out how to prepare themselves for the potentially paralysing consequences of Brexit. Their solution? Digitalisation.

RX/Seaport: the digital solution

RX/SeaPort is a digital link connecting all of the parties involved in Zeebrugge's logistics chain. The platform allows these parties to exchange data and information via a single unique and secure connection. But the software does much more than simply digitalise customs formalities; in fact, it's a complete electronic management solution for all goods streams to and from the United Kingdom.


Using the e-Desk, the shipping agent or freight carrier can inform the terminal operator of the arrival of a load and the associated customs document number. Terminal operators can retrieve this data at any time, enabling them to check that a customs document has been produced for the goods. The application can also be used to trace goods at any point in their journey. Brexit cannot be allowed to obstruct the flow of goods in to or out of the port – and RX/Seaport has a key role to play in ensuring that it doesn't.

Port companies also brexitproof

A number of port companies also came up with their own digital initiatives to ensure that the new customs formalities would not result in valuable time being wasted. Logistics company ECS2XL, which specialises in transport to and from the British Isles, is a great example. "At least 60 percent of our loads are destined for the United Kingdom", says Hugo Donche, commercial and development director at ECS2XL. "We deliver to the six largest retailers, including Tesco and Sainsbury's…, together, these retailers account for 85% of British supermarket spending". "The supermarkets order directly from us, which is unique in the industry. As a 'supply chain integrator', we take care of every aspect of the process, from the minute a product rolls off the conveyor belt until it reaches the supermarket shelf".

Five million pallets a year

"The degree of flexibility we offer is completely unique", explains Hugo Donche. "Supermarkets can order one product per pallet. We ensure that the trucks are loaded in the most efficient way possible". The Port of Zeebrugge plays a key role in the concept. "We made a decision long ago to build warehouses here and to establish ties to the port because of all the benefits it brings. With ferry connections, we can avoid the bottlenecks in Calais".


"Every day, ten roll-on roll-off freight ferries from numerous shipping companies depart from various terminals at Zeebrugge to head for the UK. With six terminals distributed along the UK coastline, we have the flexibility to choose how to serve our customers most efficiently. Our philosophy is to transport goods as far as possible by sea to reduce the number of kilometres travelled by road. This commercial efficiency makes the process more environmentally friendly too".

The brexit challenge

At ECS2XL, Brexit preparations had already started two years ago. With the concept of just-in-time deliveries to supermarkets, a reliable flow of goods was of prime importance. However, the mix of various pallets created a challenge. "On the same trailer we can have goods for different customers, with each customer needing its own declaration. A customs declaration is required when the goods leave the EU, and then again when they enter England. Without digitization we would come to masses of wasted time and high agency costs," says the ECS2XL director.

A successful test phase

ECS2XL has already processed over 6500 declarations in the test environments for customs on both sides of the North Sea. "All of these declarations were approved", says Hugo Donche – proudly adding that his company is one of the firms operating out of Zeebrugge that has obtained AEO (Authorised Economic Operator) certification. "AEO certification creates some key commercial advantages: Fewer checks and a lower security deposit are two of the most important. AEO status confirms that there is a relationship of trust between the certified company and the government".

Now it takes 30 seconds to produce a declaration. The truck can be on the road within half an hour.

Hugo DoncheCommercial & Development Director at ECS2XL

Optimum infrastructure for a well-oiled logistics chain

The Port of Zeebrugge has also spent a considerable amount of time preparing its Brexitproof infrastructure. Physical bottlenecks must be avoided at all costs, and freight must be able to travel through the port as rapidly as possible. Zeebrugge has a Border Inspection Post, where customs and the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain already have people and equipment in place.


The port has sufficient cool storage and additional truck parking. It also boasts a team of trained staff who are able to come up with efficient solutions if the flow of cargo is even slightly delayed.The port has drawn up a contingency plan to safeguard mobility and access to the port and port companies at all times.

Zeebrugge is ready

At the end of the year, a nation, friend and one of the most important customers of the Port of Zeebrugge will be leaving the customs union. But thanks to the preparations made by the port authority and the Zeebrugge association – and the port's commitment to the digitalisation drive – there is no need for companies or customers on either side of the North Sea to worry about the changes. Zeebrugge is ready for Brexit.

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