By Antony Hook MEP
This week I visited to Dover to talk to local businesses about will happen on November 1st in the case of a no deal Brexit. It was a warm summer’s day and the seafront was peaceful. Cars and lorries were rolling on and off ferries in an orderly fashion and everything was working as it should.
But behind the scenes, there are some very worried people. People whose livelihoods depend on everything running smoothly.
It currently takes just two minutes for a lorry boarding the ferry to clear customs. If that time doubles to just four minutes, port officials told me there will be a perpetual 17-mile queue coming into Dover as drivers wait to pass through the port.
Nobody yet knows what a no deal Brexit will look like. Vast sums of money have been spent on contingency planning, but until vital questions are answered, a lot of that work is purely speculative.
At the moment, an outbound lorry’s number plate is scanned at Dover. That tells the authorities that the lorry has boarded. No checks take place on the British side. During the crossing, the information is shared with the French border control and any lorries requiring searches are diverted once they land in Calais.
If we go ahead with Brexit, French border security may require those checks to happen before the lorries board in Dover. The question is, where? There is no space to hold the vehicles within the port which is sandwiches between the sea and the White Cliffs.
Many exporters who only export to the EU have never had to deal with the paperwork required to export outside the customs union. If drivers arrive without the correct paperwork, they may have to leave the port while the forms are sorted out. For drivers who have lost hours queuing, this may cause more than irritation if they have to return to the back of the queue. Drivers are obliged to take regular breaks. Where will they park if they need to rest? The infrastructure isn’t there.
Canterbury residents might be forgiven for thinking this is Dover’s problem, but they would be wrong. The government’s plans for dealing with long queues involve holding the lorries along the M20 and at the former Manston airport.
The problem here is that these plans suffer from around 30% non-compliance. That is to say, around 1 in 3 drivers break off from the directed route and attempt to navigate along the back roads surrounding the area.
In 2015, during industrial action in France and at the height of the migrant crisis, we saw a glimpse of what is likely to happen again. Motorways were jammed. Backroads were blocked. People spent so long stuck in traffic that water had to be handed out and people were sleeping overnight in their vehicles.
There are many reasons why this is a big concern for the people of Canterbury. For me the biggest is if you need urgent medical attention and an ambulance to take you to hospital. How are you going to get there when the main roads to Ashford and to Margate a snarled up with traffic?
On my visit to Dover, I was reassured by the dedication and talent of the many people working on addressing these problems. But it is clear that there are real and massive risks. No-one who voted Leave voted for this. We should stop Brexit now.