Brexit, a leap into the unknown for Calais

It’s been four days in London, Big Ben sounded the end of the European adventure for the United Kingdom. Thursday, December 31, 2020 and Friday, first day of 2021: the 27 EU member countries were watching for these two dates, expecting a new big bang. And… nothing spectacular happened.

On the night of Thursday to Friday, a single lorry full of strawberries from Belgium was blocked inside the port of Dover and banned from continuing its journey in the UK. His driver thought he could get through before the new measures were put in place. Miscalculation.

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For the rest, no traffic jams. Neither in France, nor in the United Kingdom, nor in Belgium or the Netherlands, affected to a lesser extent by this new situation. Proof of the fear of import-export companies, which had made stocks ahead of the fateful date, and transport companies, which had taken advantage of the New Year’s weekend to limit travel. Only 450 entry permits into Kent were issued, Friday 1er January, when 11,000 trucks normally pass through this county every day to reach the port of Dover or the Eurotunnel terminal, on the British side, in Folkestone.

Puzzled traders

It must be said that between the coronavirus crisis, which reduced the crossings of individuals to the strict minimum, and road traffic at half mast during the truce for confectioners, the leap into the unknown took place without witnesses at the Brexit borders. .

In Calais, traders, for their part, remain perplexed. The English are good customers for the restaurants, cafes and shops in the center. “No need to say, they don’t spend too much money when they buy croissants and pastries! “exclaims the owner of the bakery Fred, in front of the town hall. “They say they don’t have such good bread at home. “ Their absence was felt at the time of the holidays, confides a young florist installed rue Royale.

Brexit, a leap into the unknown for Calais

In his small hotel, the Richelieu, on the edge of a park, Benoît Grancier, does not know whether his family business will be affected either. ” I’ll wait to see what comes next “, he said. Already, he has decided to transform a few rooms into apartments for a more stable income.

Before the pandemic, the English represented more than half of its clientele. At the Richelieu, they appreciate the little touches, such as the personalized decoration of the rooms, the kettle. At the beginning, I offered them toast for breakfast, I quickly realized they preferred the baguette and croissants. “

Will the English come less to Calais? The only certainty is that, like the Europeans, they will need to have a passport to cross the Channel and will be surprised to see customs officers again when they get off the Eurostar or the ferries. And the English will no longer be able to leave with ten bottles of whiskey per person! , adds, jokingly, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president and general manager of the port Boulogne Calais who recognizes, more seriously, that “The English make us work with 4,500 trucks per day which pass through the port of Calais, with five round trips by ferry “.

The “smart” border

On both sides of the Channel, the transport of goods will be the most affected by the new administrative measures even if, from now on, we speak of “smart” border (smart border), a logistics system operated by customs, both for ferry traffic and tunnel traffic.

In both directions, the cargoes must be declared upstream by computer. The information is stored in the customs management system. All you need is a barcode and a license plate to authorize or not the truck to continue on its way, explains Isabelle Braun-Lemaire, director general of customs. The Cross-Channel traffic is particular, compared to other large ports, because it is road. The drivers get on board with their truck and continue their journey without changing drivers. “

If everything is in order, the truck will have the green light to continue its journey without stopping. Otherwise, facing the orange line, he will have to wait to comply. A surprising return to the situation before the United Kingdom entered the EU on 1er January 1973. To cope with these new provisions, French customs had to recruit 700 customs officers for the three sites of the port of Calais, Dunkirk and Eurotunnel, and 276 agents for health checks in Calais alone.

While the Channel Tunnel had allowed “Fluidity and speed” of cross-Channel traffic, as enshrined in the Treaty of Canterbury – which laid down the rules for the construction and operation of the tunnel -, signed on February 12, 1986 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterrand, the Brexit, in the name sovereignty so prized by the British, establishes new barriers in texts and in people’s minds. The United Kingdom is taking refuge behind its borders.

Consequences for Calais

This situation makes me very sad, confides on the phone Marian Bohling, Briton living in Ferques, a small town in the region. I have been in France for twenty-eight years with my husband and my children. With Brexit, the borders are closing. I don’t see the benefits, I think I will no longer be allowed to bring my favorite sausages back from the UK. I will no longer be able to bring flowers from my favorite village florist to England. It will be more difficult for the English to come to Europe and bring back the French cheeses they love so much. “

Her husband, also British, works for Eurotunnel. Both want to stay on this side of the Channel. I fell in love with France when I was ten, said Marian, it was the common market. And I have always worked in London for French companies. I don’t think the British understand what Brexit entails. “

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What will be the consequences for Calais? Relations between the city of 80,000 inhabitants and the British have always been turbulent. In front of the Town Hall, the “Bourgeois de Calais”, immortalized by Rodin, recall the self-denial of local dignitaries surrendering to the English to save the Calaisians during the British siege in 1346 and 1347.

During World War II, the city of Calais, a strategic position, was bombarded by the Germans and the allies. She resisted the invader. Winston Churchill commended the resistance of the troops in Calais, but forbade their evacuation. Faced with the German forces, they had no chance: 3,000 English soldiers and 800 French soldiers were sacrificed so that Calais could last three more days, the time to ensure the evacuation to Dunkirk, by boat, of 338,226. soldiers to Great Britain.

In Richelieu Park, the recent statues of Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill face a structure representing the fragmented Hexagon which is gradually recovering its original contours. Between the rue Royale and the Place d’Armes, the general, again, proudly gives his arm to Yvonne Vendroux, a Calaisienne whom he married in April 1921 in the Notre-Dame church.

Cross-Channel traffic

“Until the 1980s, Calais was very much alive with its lace industry. The English were crossing for the day. They were everywhere in the city, in restaurants, cafes, and they were rushing to buy alcohol in the duty-free “remembers Nicolas Bernier, English teacher. With the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Union, the duty-free have closed their doors – they will probably not return to the city even if many hope the opposite -, the lace industry has declined, unemployment climbed.

At the same time, another activity has provided jobs: cross-Channel traffic. It developed thanks to the opening of the tunnel in 1994, through which 25% of goods pass, 24 hours a day, or 140 billion euros per year. The stakes are high on both sides of the Channel. For the Hauts-de-France region, five million trucks pass between the ports of Dunkirk and Calais and Great Britain. Between Calais and Dover, a ferry leaves every thirty-five to forty minutes.

Golf courses, shopping centers – like Cité Europe – have opened on the outskirts of Calais, which has become a city of passage. For small traders, the British clientele remains nonetheless important. The owner of the “Au martin-pêcheur” shop, on the Place d’Armes, doesn’t want to worry about his business. “The English are fond of quality fishing equipment, which is much cheaper here. “

“The show must go on”

After so many years of contacts, meetings, visits and habits, relations between Calais and the British remain distant. We are close, but always separated by a border, the arm of the sea , notes the hotelier Benoît Grancier.

Few of the people of Calais cross the Channel. When he was still living in Calais, Nicolas Bernier suggested that traders give them English lessons. They didn’t mind not speaking the language of a large part of their clientele , he said. As for the future, “The show must go on! “, launches Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the president of the port Boulogne Calais: “But to know that there at a border between us and Great Britain, it’s all the same weird. “


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