Port and tunnel operators confident of avoiding Brexit Channel chaos


The operators of the vital Dover-Calais trading route are confident new Brexit bureaucracy from Friday will not bring a repeat of the pre-Christmas chaos of stranded truckers across Kent and parts of France.

A combination of an expected sharp drop in traffic after January 1, the UK temporarily waiving most of its customs checks, and new systems and infrastructure on the French side of the border should keep traffic moving, they predicted this week.

“We are very confident that our bit [of the process] will work,” said John Keefe, director of public affairs at Channel Tunnel operator Getlink. 

But much of the success of the new border operations will still depend on traders successfully completing millions of customs declarations, costing businesses an estimated £7bn a year in new red tape, according to HM Revenue & Customs, as Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union.

Ministers are nervous that Brexit will be defined by queues that appear immediately after frictionless trade disappears at 11pm UK time on December 31. Michael Gove, Britain’s Cabinet Office minister, warned this week of “bumpy moments” resulting from “practical and procedural changes” imposed in the new year. The UK government is anxious to avoid more pictures of miles of lorries gridlocked or parked in a disused airfield.

On Monday morning, while all but 15 trucks had been cleared from the M20 motorway, the remnants of France’s pre-Christmas decision to close the border with the UK due to the discovery of the new Covid-19 variant was still visible, with thousands of plastic bags of waste and bottles of urine strewn on the verges and hard shoulder.

Trucks will be filtered into orange and green lanes at the Channel Tunnel’s Coquelles terminal in France after they arrive © Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
From Thursday the port of Calais will operate systems that require only a barcode to show that export declarations for goods travelling to the UK have been loaded into the EU systems, along with UK import declarations © Sylvain Lefevre/Getty

But while the UK’s new truck stop and lorry park at Sevington, just
outside Ashford, is still full of mechanical diggers and far from
complete, the post-Brexit border facilities on the other side of the
channel have been finished for many months. The gleaming new customs facilities at both the Channel Tunnel and the Port of Calais stand as testament to the new frictions to trade.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s false claim that there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade brings out a grimace from Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the port of Boulogne and Calais, who had to spend €13m on new processes for trucks and buildings for checks. Getlink has spent €47m on new infrastructure on its Coquelles site.

Mr Keefe said the all-important part of the process in getting 3,500 trucks a day through the Channel Tunnel was ensuring escape routes for those trucks that do not have a smooth passage so that they do not hold up those behind them.

“Everything we’ve done is to build offline moments to do controls and inspection without disrupting the flow of the traffic,” Mr Keefe said.

For UK exports to the EU this means that so long as their customs paperwork was accepted by both the British and French authorities and the truck was allowed on to the trains, they would round a corner after disembarkation in France, go through a couple of chicanes to slow them down and allow their number plates to be read automatically. Then, without stopping, each lorry would be given a green or an amber sign and told to follow road markings depending on the risk assessment made by French customs authorities.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the ports of Calais and Boulogne © Sylvain Lefevre/Getty
New bays on the French side for unloading and checking lorries arriving via the Channel Tunnel © Chris Giles/FT

The green lane goes straight to the motorway as now, while the amber lane is routed to a lorry park on site with nine new inspection bays and even a stable for horses. There, drivers will wait for checks, most likely if importing plant or animal products.

A similar system has been built at the Port of Calais for the larger number of trucks using ferries, but drivers will be given their green or amber verdicts on an app while crossing the channel.

For European exports to the UK, the infrastructure is also in place. Both the Channel Tunnel and the port will operate systems that require only a barcode to show that export declarations have been loaded into the EU systems and the import declarations for the UK, and these will be scanned at the same time as the existing dog checks to look for illegal migrants take place.

At this “pit stop”, the Channel Tunnel and authorities can check 20 trucks every four to five minutes, according to Mr Keefe. Any truck without the required paperwork will be routed out of the flow to a new facility with customs agents and 250 spaces for lorries to park up and fill in the paperwork.

It is the requirement for all trucks to turn up at the coast with all paperwork ready which all sides warn has the potential to cause disruption. “If the majority of hauliers don’t make a declaration, there will be a problem, but I don’t believe it will happen,” Mr Puissesseau said.

On the UK side, there will be minimal initial checks on imports into Britain because the facilities are not yet ready.

John Glen, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, suggested a lack of queues on the M20 would disguise a loss of trade due to insufficient customs agents to process millions of new declarations. “Much of the problem will be hidden,” he said and would build once pre-Christmas stockpiles began to run short in February.

In Calais, the new rules had already brought a post-Christmas lull in traffic ahead of the new rules coming into force. Port operators said they expected a very quiet month ahead.

“We expect January to be calm because lots of people have taken themselves out of the market by stockpiling, but we expect traffic to be going again from the beginning of February,” Mr Keefe said.

But with the anticipation of Brexit alongside coronavirus already reducing the trucks crossing by ferry from 2m a year to 1.7m in 2020, Mr Puissesseau hopes the reality of the new customs checks will not hurt his business further, especially as it prepares to open a huge expansion to the port later in 2021. “I hope it will remain at 1.7m,” he said. 


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