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Stena ferry boss attacks EU over border controls

Niclas Mårtensson - Stena Line
Niclas Mårtensson - Stena Line

The EU is complicating post-Brexit trade with its tough approach towards border controls, according to the boss of one of the world’s biggest ferry operators.

Niclas Mårtensson, chief executive of Stena Line, cites Brussels’ insistence on checking British passports in a separate queue as an example of bureaucracy on the Continent.

“Travelling to the UK… I continue standing in the same queue as you guys,” says Mr Mårtensson, speaking from Stena’s headquarters in Gothenburg.

“But when you come into Schengen, [Britons] have to queue up in the non-EU passport queue. So I think there are different dimensions of who wants to make it complicated and who wants to make it simplified. In that case, the UK is the winner.”

His comments follow fears that UK trade will suffer if Brussels refuses to soften new border checks due to come in next year.

Biometric controls are due to be introduced next May, replacing the “wet stamping” of passports, which was brought in after Britain left the EU. But there are concerns that the new identity checks could take considerably longer than the current system.

In relation to Brexit, few companies can lay claim to being more exposed to the fallout of the UK's exit from the EU than Stena Line.

The business operates 25,000 departures a year with services stretching across Europe from Hanko, Finland in the east to Rosslare, Ireland in the west.

Employing 5,100 people globally, Stena Line has a sizable UK footprint, running sailings out of nine UK ports, some of which it owns. The company represents one-third of the business interests of  billionaire Dan Sten Olsson and his family - one of Sweden's wealthiest families.

Stena Line ferry
Stena Line ferry

Mr Olsson's father, Sten Allan founded Stena Line in 1962, running services between Gothenburg and the fishing port of Skagen

Mr Mårtensson, however, says that Stena is extremely bullish about doing business in Britain post-Brexit.

Last week it submitted a bid to build a freeport in Anglesey - one that is estimated to create up to 13,000 jobs and contribute as much as £1bn for the UK economy.

Positioning the freeport in North Wales would act as a “land bridge” between the Continent and Ireland. Delivery times would be cut by several days through landing goods at ports on the south coast and driving them over land to Holyhead instead of shipping them through the English Channel and Irish Sea.

Mr Mårtensson says: “We have done a number of investments in new shapes, which we could put anywhere in Europe. But we decided to do it in the UK.

“We're taking the next step by trying to make Anglesey and north Wales more attractive.”

The Stena chief doesn’t agree that the UK is becoming anti-business: “I don't see that there are any hiccups to keep growing in the UK business environment. And talking about politicians [the UK] is one of the countries where I think I'm meeting most of the politicians because the doors are open. And I think we have a good dialogue there”

Speaking to The Telegraph as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak continues to be dogged by reports that he is seeking a “Swiss-style” trade agreement with the EU, Mr Mårtensson says “the biggest question for us is not really the deal between EU and UK from trading”.

“The question is more, what will happen with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; the consequences on the protocol and the Good Friday Agreement.

“I think that is really where I'm struggling to find a feeling or a sense of what, where we will end in that discussion.”

Northern Ireland is currently in the EU's single market for goods under the Northern Ireland Protocol, avoiding the need for a hard border with the Republic of Ireland in an area that was rocked by conflict for decades.

But the EU has said the way checks are being implemented is not "fit for purpose".

“It works very well as it is now,”  Mr Mårtensson says. “I think if there could be a compromise between EU and UK and saying we continue treating Ireland as we do right now, I think that would be the best and more stabilised solution to avoid what they're talking about border controls.”

Although it is at the forefront of Brexit Britain, Stena Line was able to look on from afar at the scandal engulfing P&O Ferries earlier this year.

P&O ferries - Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
P&O ferries - Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The company no longer runs ferries between Dover and Calais. In 1998 it merged with P&O before Stena sold its stake to P&O four years later.

Dover became a political flashpoint in March when Dubai-owned P&O Ferries dismissed 800 seafarers with immediate effect, replacing them with cheaper foreign labour.

The move brought widespread recriminations from politicians from both sides of the political spectrum. Legislation has been brought in to prevent other ferry companies from copying P&O’s lead.

Mr Mårtensson claims the summary dismissals were “not in line with how we treat our people”.

“Yes, potentially, it has put some kind of bad reputation on the industry,” he says.

“We are quite active in dialogue with our employees, with politicians, [and] with the unions. We prefer dialogue instead of something else.”

Ian Hampton, Stena Line’s operating chief adds: “There’s no question. And we've made that very clear. This [the P&O approach] is bad for the whole industry.”

In the months that followed, P&O’s vessels were trapped in ports as UK officials, acting under international maritime laws, quarantined the ferries on safety grounds.

Ministers were unable to bring criminal proceedings against P&O despite claims that the operator had broken the law.

It is common for ferry and cruise operators to use overseas labour because for much of their time business is conducted in international waters. Mr Mårtensson said Stena Line used local employees where possible.

Mr Hampton says: “The trouble is, there's nothing illegal about what they [P&O] did. Because it is an international precedent that you can employ people in an international way.”