The president of the French region closest to the UK has warned that a no-deal Brexit would bring much of northern Europe to its knees, as he called for more help from both Brussels and Paris to deal with the risk.
Xavier Bertrand, president of the Northern Hauts-de-France region, said that if the UK and London failed to reach agreement before Britain’s scheduled March 29 exit, the European Commission would need to soften rules on border checks, while the French government would have to provide more resources.
“It is not only the north of France that would be impacted by a no-deal but rather all of France and all of Europe,” Mr Bertrand told the Financial Times in an interview. “The trucks, companies and factories that will be blocked will be those of the north of France, the whole of France and Germany.”
David Lidington, UK prime minister Theresa May’s de facto deputy, briefed the British cabinet this month that French customs controls in a no-deal Brexit could block the heavily used Dover-Calais route, reducing it to only 12-25 per cent of its normal capacity for up to six months.
The Hauts-de-France region includes Calais, Boulogne-sur-Mer and Dunkirk, respectively France’s largest passenger port, its biggest fishing port and number three cargo hub.
“If we have two minutes of extra customs controls for trucks, it will mean 27 kms of traffic jams on both sides and this will result in complete paralysis,” Mr Bertrand said. “This is one of the busiest commercial arteries in the world . . . We must do everything to avoid chaos.”
At present, the talks between Brussels and London are stalled over disagreements over “backstop” provisions to prevent a hard border in Ireland. But Mrs May has said there is 95 per cent agreement on a withdrawal deal and has suggested that the UK could remain in the EU’s single market and customs union as a transitional measure until after 2020.
Mr Bertrand argued that, with no certainty about what the repercussions of a no-deal would be, “we therefore need as much flexibility as possible at all levels to cope with the difficulties.”
He added: “For example, we could ask for exemptions from the European Commission to reduce customs and regulatory controls based on risk analysis.”
The EU is already taking some steps to soften the disruption that would be posed by a no-deal, telling the FT this week that in such an event EU groups could use crucial UK derivatives clearing services even if Britain crashes out of the bloc.
Mr Bertrand added that his region was seeking to ensure that “controls are not done at the last moment at the border but further upstream”, under technological changes that have already been rolled out at Dunkirk and are being prepared at Calais-Boulogne and the Channel tunnel.
But he cautioned that his call for flexibility on UK-French border checks did not extend to sanitary controls. “We cannot compromise with food security,” he added.
Instead, Mr Bertrand called for more help from the French central government on this and other issues, even as he acknowledged a move by Paris to recruit 700 new customs officers.
“What about the recruitment of veterinarians and agricultural experts for sanitary and phytosanitary controls?” Mr Bertrand. “What about help to businesses to deal with cash flow problems that will inevitably arise? What about the risks to the security of property and people, if we have tens of kilometres of traffic jams? The government must respond quickly to these very concrete questions, there is very little time, there is urgency!”
Hauts-de-France is among the French regions worst hit by de-industrialisation, and high unemployment levels. with an accompanying rise in support for the far-right National Front, which scored 45 per cent of the vote in Dunkirk in the second round of last year’s presidential elections.
The region is beginning to recover economically but Mr Bertrand warned there were “political implications in the case of hard Brexit”.