France is to deploy customs officers on Eurostar trains from London to Paris as a stop-gap measure to monitor luggage and goods entering the EU when the UK’s Brexit transition ends on December 31, even as lengthy traffic jams at Channel ports this week pointed to potential border chaos in the new year.
The French have already appointed 600 extra customs officers and 300 more specialist inspectors such as veterinarians at Channel ports and other points of entry to deal with the extra checks and procedures which will come into force post-Brexit.
But Olivier Dussopt, the French minister responsible for customs, told the FT in an interview that British and French customs authorities have yet to agree post-Brexit customs controls, forcing Paris to introduce the temporary Eurostar checks.
Detailed discussions between UK and French customs authorities began only a few weeks ago, Mr Dussopt said, more than four years after the Brexit referendum.
“There’s a discussion under way between the French and British authorities to allow French customs to have an official presence on British soil at points of embarkation,” Mr Dussopt said. “While we wait to reach agreement . . . we will adapt, for example, by having checks inside the trains.”
The current system of identity checks at the Eurostar stations of St Pancras in London and the Gare du Nord in Paris is designed to spare passengers a set of controls at each end of their journey and to combine them at the departure point where they board.
The French move underlines the obstacles to the free flow of people and goods between the UK and the EU that will be erected by the British departure from the bloc’s single market on December 31.
There was heavy congestion at ports on both sides of the channel and roads approaching the Channel Tunnel departure terminal at Folkestone, partly caused by stockpiling ahead of the Brexit deadline.
Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, said supermarkets and other businesses wanted “a reasonably high stock of everything that’s not perishable in place before the Brexit deadline in case they’re hit with tariffs” in the event of no deal.
Meanwhile, migrants camped out in northern France have taken advantage of the traffic jams to hide aboard UK-bound lorries, prompting French and UK police to make additional vehicle checks, which has triggered further delays, according to French officials and transport companies.
Amazon warned on Friday that customers should “expect delays for shipments crossing the UK-EU border” as a result of “the introduction of the customs border and increased activity around the holiday season”.
Channel Tunnel operator Getlink said that in addition to pre-Brexit stockpiling, deliveries of Covid-19 related protective equipment and lorries carrying containers originally destined for the port of Felixstowe were contributing to lengthy queues.
Delays at Felixstowe — Britain’s busiest container port — have led to several container shipping companies rerouting vessels to ports in Germany, Belgium and France in the past week. Reduced ferry services between Calais and Dover mean lorries carrying those containers on to the UK are increasingly turning to the Channel Tunnel.
The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) insisted the problem was not unique to Britain “with ports around the globe experiencing similar container capacity issues”.
“The government is working closely with the freight industry to work through the challenges some of our ports are facing.”
Talks to avert a no trade deal Brexit continued on Friday with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warning that the negotiations had reached a “moment of truth”.
Speaking to MEPs in Brussels, Mr Barnier said he believed an agreement with the UK was possible but that difficult sticking points remained, notably on the issue of EU access to UK fishing waters.
“Very little useful time, some hours, is left to us, if this agreement is to take effect on January 1”, he said, adding that the two sides would make “a last attempt to find an acceptable agreement”.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, said the talks remained “difficult” and urged the EU to “see sense” and improve its terms for a future trade deal.
French officials say they are surprised at what one called the administrative “mess” and lack of preparations for Brexit on the English side of the Channel, although Mr Dussopt said diplomatically: “I note that the organisation is not the same on the British side as it is on the French side. It is not for me to comment on the preparations of the British authorities.”
The UK government did not respond to requests for comment on the French government’s plans.
While France says it will apply the rules of the single market to goods entering the EU — including applicable customs tariffs in the absence of a trade deal — it is not clear that the UK will immediately subject its imports from the EU to the same level of controls and some officials expect the British to be lenient to ease the flow of goods.
“If on departure from France things are less strictly checked when the lorry arrives on the British side, that is the right and the responsibility of the British,” Mr Dussopt said.