LONDON - Smugglers and other organized criminals are likely to exploit gaps in border enforcement if Britain leaves the European Union without an agreement, a watchdog warned Wednesday, amid a growing chorus of warnings about the disruptive impact of a "no-deal" Brexit.
Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, but London and Brussels have not reached an agreement on divorce terms and a smooth transition to a new relationship. The stalemate has heightened fears that the U.K. might leave without a deal in place, leading to chaos at ports and economic turmoil.
The National Audit Office said in a report that political uncertainty and delays in negotiations with the EU have hampered preparations for new border arrangements, and the government is now racing to bolster computer systems, increase staffing and build new infrastructure to track goods.
The office said that 11 of 12 major projects may not be delivered on time or at "acceptable quality," with those who rely on the border "paying the price." It added that "organized criminals and others are likely to be quick to exploit any perceived weaknesses or gaps in the enforcement regime."
"This, combined with the U.K.'s potential loss of access to EU security, law enforcement and criminal justice tools, could create security weaknesses which the government would need to address urgently,'' the office's report said.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had raised at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday the idea of chartering ships to bring in food and medicines through alternative ports if new customs checks led to gridlock on the main shipping route between Dover in England and Calais in France.
"We remain confident of reaching an agreement with the EU, but it is only sensible for government and industry to prepare for a range of scenarios," the Department for Transport said in a statement.
Prime Minister Theresa May said this week that a divorce deal is "95 percent" done, but the two sides still have a "considerable" gap over the issue of the border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Britain and the EU agree there must be no barriers that could disrupt businesses and residents on both sides of the border and undermine Northern Ireland's hard-won peace process. But so far, each side has rejected the other's solution.
May has attempted to break the impasse by suggesting that a post-Brexit transition period, currently due to end in December 2020, could be extended to give more time for new trade and customs arrangements to be put in place that would eliminate the need for border checks.
EU has said it is open to the proposal, but the idea has infuriated May's political opponents on both sides of Britain's Brexit divide.
Pro-Brexit politicians see it as an attempt to bind the country to the bloc indefinitely, while pro-EU politicians say it is a sign of May's weak bargaining hand and an attempt to stall for time.
On Wednesday, May will try to stem a growing revolt within her Conservative Party over her Brexit blueprint. She'll address the 1922 Committee, a grouping of backbench Conservative legislators with a key role in deciding who leads the party.
Under Conservative rules, a vote of no-confidence in the leader is triggered if 15 percent of party lawmakers write to the 1922 Committee requesting one. The required number currently stands at 48; only committee chief Graham Brady knows how many have been submitted.