Brexit stockpiling is causing 17-kilometre lorry queues and delays of up to five hours in Calais, France, it has emerged as hopes of a trade deal between the European and Union and the United Kingdom fade.
Sources close to the president of the Hauts-de-France region said there had been 50 per cent more heavy goods vehicles on the approach roads to the French port and Eurotunnel, which links France to Britain, in the past three weeks.
“November and December are always busy months, but extreme stockpiling because businesses are trying to get goods into the UK before January 1st is the main cause,” the source said.
“Normally we have about 6,000 trucks, but now it is about 9,000. It shows the extreme of the consequences of Brexit whether there is a deal or not. Trucks are having to slow down all along the A16 back to Dunkirk with delays of up to 17km.”
The delays in crossing the Channel are causing acute problems in the UK. Honda and Jaguar have had to halt production temporarily because of parts shortages, and it emerged on Friday that Ikea had been besieged by complaints because of what it called "operational challenges" as shipments of its flatpack furniture are held up at clogged ports.
Eurotunnel said it believed delays on the British side would continue for the next three weeks. Its contingencies centre on the worst-case scenario of a no-deal Brexit involving up to 7,000 lorries queuing in Kent.
British prime minister Boris Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Friday they were unlikely to reach a post-Brexit trade deal by Sunday.
EU and UK negotiators are engaged in a final effort to reach agreement over the weekend amid growing pessimism in Brussels and sharper rhetoric about a no-deal in the UK.
Negotiators will continue talking until Sunday when the two sides have agreed to decide whether a deal is possible. On Friday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said a no-deal outcome was “very, very likely” after EU leaders rebuffed his suggestion of individual meetings to break the deadlock.
The talks remain stalled on fisheries, level playing field guarantees of fair competition and how to enforce any agreement. But the focus has narrowed in recent days on to the “ratchet clause” which would allow the EU to impose tariffs on UK goods if it raised its environmental, employment or consumer standards and the UK did not follow suit.
Hauts-de-France leaders have been planning for Brexit congestion since the first threat of no deal in 2018, when the regional president, Xavier Bertrand, made a furious speech in the European parliament warning of a "dark scenario".
The French authorities calculated at the time that a two-minute delay at the port or the Eurotunnel gateway would lead to queues of 27km on either side, so slow-moving queues of 17km will be read in some quarters as an achievement.
Tailback traffic is also quickly caused by security incidents, with the continuing problem of migrants trying to board lorry trailers.
The delays have been matched by long tailbacks at the Eurotunnel on the British side, caused partly by a reduction in the number of ferries because of Covid and the number of empty lorries returning to the continent after their stockpiling deliveries. Queues sometimes stretching back at least eight kilometres have formed almost every day for the past two weeks.
“We are seeing several hundred trucks above forecasts on midweek days,” a Eurotunnel spokesman said. Recent company figures show traffic 11 per cent up on last year for November.
Eurotunnel said contingency plans, also modelled since 2018, meant it could move traffic on to the trains quickly. “We expect it to be like this for the next three weeks with some tailing off as we get close to Christmas and then drop off in the first week of January,” the spokesman said.
“Lots of companies have said their production for the first two weeks will stop because of the nervousness of what is coming so that will have an impact and we also believe the authorities are going to be lenient in the first few days after 1 January.”
The drive to stockpile flows from the fact that customs, regulatory and agrifood checks will be introduced deal or no deal because the UK is leaving the single market. Further disruption is expected over the weekend in Kent with a live test of Operation Brock, the UK’s no-deal traffic contingency plan for the M20, put in place on Friday night.
The UK is hoping to mitigate the impact by phasing in checks over six months, but businesses have voiced concerns that the customs software and the special electronic Brexit passports for international freight drivers to get into Kent will not be ready in time for Brexit day. - Guardian