By Richard Lough
CALAIS, France (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to take Britain out of the European Union “do or die” on Oct. 31, even if that meant risking chaos at the borders.
He failed to deliver on his pledge, however, and on Thursday ferries at the northern French port of Calais disgorged trucks by the dozens without border formalities, a fluid operation that allows just-in-time delivery within Europe’s single market.
The renewed delay to Brexit, to Jan. 31, spares businesses in Calais, the French port city whose fortunes are deeply intertwined with Britain’s economy — at least for now.
But with Britain heading for a Dec. 12 election that could return a very different parliament to that which rejected Johnson’s plans, the future remains uncertain.
“We’re all a bit fed up,” said Calais port chief Jean-Marc Puissesseau. Brexit delays, he said, fouled up budget planning.
“The longer Brexit is delayed, the less clarity we have over what comes next.”
Puissesseau’s remarks reflect a wider irritation in northern France’s transport, logistics and fisheries industries, whose businesses have had to move their preparedness plans as the Brexit deadline shifts, sucking up costs as they do so.
A 6 million euro investment in infrastructure to restore a hard border at Calais port in the event of a no-deal rupture may have been for nothing — an outcome Puissesseau said he would be glad of if it meant friction-free trade continued.
The maritime route across the 23-mile wide Strait of Dover has been one of Britain’s main arteries for European trade since the Middle Ages. Calais handles some 2 million trucks per year and a 700 million euro expansion to be completed in January 2021 will double capacity.
“We need traffic,” Puissesseau said.
Freight traffic via the crossing this year is projected to fall 3%.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
Hauts-de-France is among the French regions hit hardest by decades of deindustrialisation and a hard Brexit would compound its challenges.
Puissesseau said customs checks would be inevitable if Britain left the EU’s single market and customs union but that Calais was ready, and dismissed talk of nightmarish congestion.
Not all local businesses are convinced.
Briton Gavin Teale, whose Calais-based GoTEK7 counts police forces and wealthy individuals among clients for its hidden GPS trackers, took a six-month office lease in southern England as no-deal fears intensified.
The UK space allows Teale, whose company has an annual turnover of 1.9 million euros, to stockpile goods in case of a no-deal Brexit.
“If everything turns out alright, we can close the UK office and everything continues as it was. We lose a bit of money but that is a gamble worth taking,” the former soldier said.
Meanwhile, sales were down in the past three months.
“Clients don’t want to spend their money right now and the sooner this is out the way the better,” Teale said.
The risk of supply chain delays also threatens to disrupt the region’s fisheries industry.
In Boulogne-sur-Mer, Europe’s biggest fish processing hub, Marc Salmon buys 700 tonnes of fillets per year from Britain.
About 70 percent of the fish caught in British waters is exported to Europe. Salmon said his main concern was the possibility of phytosanitary checks and the risk of queues.
His company Whitelink Seafoods France has hired three extra workers to compensate for any eventual customs delays.
“The worst part is not knowing what and when,” Salmon said.
(Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Catherine Evans)