The first ferries and trains to cross the English Channel under the new UK-EU post-Brexit relationship have made their journeys.
So far there has been little sign of the much-anticipated disruption from the new border rules that result from the UK”s departure from the EU Single Market and Customs Union.
This is not unexpected — it’s New Year’s Day, a public holiday, pandemic restrictions have curbed holiday travel, and many companies have acted to stockpile goods in the run-up to Christmas and the end of the transition period.
Bulgarian truck driver Slavi Shumeykov was the first driver to steer his lorry on board the Eurotunnel at Folkestone following the change, which kicked in at midnight CET (11.00 UK time).
“Amazing. I am very happy to be the first driver, not only for the New Year but the first driver for Brexit, you know, for the new start for the UK. Blah blah blah,” he said.
The new formalities include customs declarations and checks on goods — although the UK is delaying these for several months for inbound traffic.
Eurotunnel has set up a “pit stop” at Folkestone where lorries are not just checked for safety but a barcode is scanned on their customs papers which is then picked up by customs officials in France.
Around 3,500 trucks normally travel on Eurotunnel in a 24-hour period, but on Thursday night only 17 lorries boarded the 12.20 am Eurotunnel train.
The first Euroshuttles also travelled in the opposite direction, from Coquelles near Calais, heading for England. Different channels have been set up for vehicles according to their status.
“During the crossing the customs software will set the status: orange or green. If it’s green it’s good, if it’s orange the customer will have to pass to the CDS centre,” said Eurotunnel employee Pierre Sailliot.
The first ferries also made their crossings on the normally-busy Dover-Calais route, carrying lorries in both directions.
Traffic here was quiet too on Friday morning, as witnessed by Euronews reporters on both sides of the Channel.
“There are checks going on… for their new documentation and I have witnessed them turning one or two lorries away because they have the old documents and not the new ones,” Victoria Smith reported from Dover. “There are plenty of new documents for hauliers to get their heads around, not all of them apparently have done so.”
In Calais the operation is largely electronic, with the authorities encouraging haulage companies to complete most of the documentation online before arriving at the port. Several hundred lorries used the port and Eurotunnel services on Friday morning, they said.
“I’ve watched dozens of lorries coming off the ferry terminal and proceeding through, and only a tiny handful of them were stopped by French officials for very rapid searches and they were then allowed to proceed as normal,” said reporter David Chazan in Calais.
The head of the Calais port authority has said he is confident that big tailbacks can be avoided in the coming weeks, thanks largely to investment in new computerised systems.
“Some hauliers have told me that they’re keeping their trucks off the road for the next few weeks, because they want to make sure that the new systems are fully bedded down, they don’t want their drivers to get stuck in any traffic jams,” Chazan added.
Both British and French governments have said that disruption can be expected due to the new border arrangements. Motorway signs on the approach to the northern French port warn of traffic jams, giving Brexit as the reason. UK plans mean lorries heading to Dover will need a “Kent access permit”.
On New Year’s Eve, just hours before the changes were due to take effect, the UK government published an updated 300-page dossier detailing the border changes for importers and exporters. There is also a new document on GB-EU trade, giving examples.
The pre-Christmas period brought severe hold-ups for lorries in southern England as France and other EU countries closed their borders to freight travel from the UK amid an outbreak of a new strain of the coronavirus.
Drivers crossing the Channel have to provide a negative COVID-19 test dating from the previous 72 hours.