Calais port: ‘The problem for us now is not Brexit. It’s Covid’

Port authorities say they are confident any problems after Brexit will be short-lived

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the Port of Calais is interviewed by a television crew. Photograph: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the Port of Calais is interviewed by a television crew. Photograph: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty

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He claims it is the wind, but there is a tear in the eye of the head of Calais port, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, as the ferry Pride of Kent docks safely shortly after 10am on Friday.

The P&O ferry is the first to have left Dover to make the short Channel journey – one of the busiest in the world – since the final ties between the United Kingdom and the European Union were cut.

For more than a year Puissesseau has worked to ensure that life after Brexit did not bring the northern French port to a halt. Confidently, he says a €40 million “smart border” system will ensure that freight moves smartly.

Truck drivers who cross the English Channel are now obliged to complete online customs declarations before leaving the UK. That data is converted into a barcode, which is scanned upon arrival in Calais.

Thibaut Rougelot, head of regional communications with the French customs service, concedes that there might be some teething problems as hauliers get used to the new rules.

“If the drivers are delayed here because they don’t have their declarations filled in correctly, they will know what to do the next time they travel through the port. But yes, there may well be some difficulties initially.”

Friday’s traffic is a fraction of the usual numbers, however, since many companies have stockpiled goods at depots in the UK and on the Continent to avoid being caught up in potential delays on either side of the Channel over the holiday period.

Cargo tripled

Calais, once a small fishing village, is now the fourth-largest port in France, and the busiest for passenger numbers. Cargo traffic has tripled over the past two decades. Last year it fell significantly, but that was down to the Covid-19 pandemic, while passenger numbers fell by six million.

In normal times ferries leave Calais every 30 minutes to cross the Dover Strait, said to be the world’s busiest shipping lane.

The industrial city has close ties with the UK, and was for more than 200 years under English rule before being briefly occupied by the Spanish.

“Finally, Calais is liberated!” says Jean-Marc Puissuisseau with a smile, after trucks begin to roll from the first ferry to arrive into the port under the new trade rules.

“The problem for us now is not Brexit. It’s Covid. Of course I am sentimental about the UK leaving the EU, but we won’t cry over it. We have a special connection with our neighbours in Britain. It’s just 30km from where we now stand. For me, personally, if I don’t visit England every three months, something is missing from my life. I will keep going there.

“We won’t be able to take 10 bottles of whiskey home with us now, but we’ll still be able to take one bottle. I always like getting ham and sausages as well for breakfast.”

Despite their confidence in the new protocols, port authorities privately breathe a sigh of relief that the disruption endured by truck drivers in the run-up to Christmas has, for now, been averted.

As seagulls swoop across cloudy skies, and the Spirit of France sets sail for Dover, Jean-Marc Puissesseau says January is always a calm month in Calais.

“We will have peace and quiet for a few weeks now to see how things go.”

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