France stages 'hard border' port drill for no-deal Brexit

Ouistreham (France) (AFP) –


French officials launched Thursday their first "dress rehearsal"of new customs checks that will be imposed if Britain crashes out of the EU without an exit deal, a scenario that could severely crimp the flow of people and goods across the English Channel.

France's Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin was on hand at the Normandy port of Ouistreham -- near the D-Day beaches stormed by Allied forces in 1944 -- for the early morning arrival of a ferry from Portsmouth.

He said France was "ready", but he said he remained a "a bit worried about how the British are preparing" as the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson published alarming documents warning of Brexit queues and disruption.

As French officers directed lines of passenger cars toward passport controls and customs declarations, others boarded lorries and began cutting open boxes of baby pacifiers for sanitary checks.

"Up until now, they are supposed to conform with EU norms," a customs agent told AFP.

"So either the British keep doing so, or they apply norms that are less restrictive and in that case, we'll inspect them just as we would with Chinese or American products," she said.

"France is ready... these tests prove it," Darmanin told journalists after the exercise, expressing confidence that "there won't be any traffic jams in France."

A no-deal Brexit is possible on October 31, meaning France will have to start inspections on a wide range of goods arriving from Britain for the first time in 46 years.

To ease trade disruptions, France has spent some 40 million euros ($44 million) and hired 700 extra customs officers.

Authorities have scrambled to set up a "smart border" with cameras to scan the license plates of trucks heading to Britain and automatically link them to shipping documents filled out online by exporters.

Darmanin said British preparations were a source of concern.

"You don't re-create a border that hasn't existed for several years... in just a few hours," he said.

- Red tape returns -

British government documents released Wednesday said up to 85 percent of British lorries may not be ready for French customs checks in the event of no deal, reducing the "flow rate to 40-60 percent of current levels."

That could spark shortages of food and crucial medical supplies, the so-called Yellowhammer report warned.

While most larger French firms have prepared for the new bureaucracy, officials worry about many of the 100,000 smaller French companies which sell in Britain.

In theory, trucks heading to Britain will be scanned and either waved through port controls to take the Channel tunnel or a ferry to Britain, or be subjected to physical checks, depending on what type of goods they are carrying.

If even just one pallet on a lorry has not been declared ahead of time, and duties paid, the entire shipment will be blocked until the formalities are carried out.

The expected additional strains have already prompted customs agents to go on strike earlier this year, hitting ferries but also the Eurostar train service, to demand higher pay and more staff.

- Calais looms -

Customs officials kicked off their test run at Ouistreham, France's 10th-largest port, which sees some three million tons of merchandise pass through each year, and one million ferry passengers.

It's a far cry from the bustle at Calais, where more than four million trucks haul some 43 million tons of goods annually though the Channel Tunnel and ferries shuttle a further nine million people.

A no-deal test run is set for later this month in Calais, where cavernous new inspection hangars have been built as well as huge parking lots to handle the expected delays.

The stakes are high for companies across Europe and French customs officials have been coordinating on the new "smart border" technologies with colleagues in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries.

Germany has the biggest share of goods going through the Channel Tunnel.

"Do all the small- and mid-size German companies understand the procedures we're asking of them?" France's Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin said on Wednesday.

One solution in case of backlogs at Calais or elsewhere, she said, is to quickly shift some ships to less congested ports, such as Zeebrugge in Belgium.

"We're talking about millions of jobs, about small- and mid-size companies that depend on these exports for 10, 15 or 20 percent of their orders," Montchalin said.

"Our role is to be prepared, and not take this lightly."