History made as first ferries cross channel at start of Brexit era


As the Pride of Kent eased its way towards the port in Calais, it was making history.

The first ferry to have crossed the English Channel in 2021; the first to carry lorries that were travelling under the umbrella of new rules and regulations.

What happened next was exactly as you might have predicted.

A P&O ferry leaves the Port of Dover following the end of the Brexit transition period, Dover, Britain, January 1, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra
A number of ferries made the crossing over the course of the day

The roads did not come to a halt; tensions did not flare at customs.

Instead, 36 lorries came off the boat and most drove straight out and on to the public road.

Only three were asked to pull over for more checks.

So the Brexit years did not start with chaos and cacophony, but with exactly the sort of smooth process that we have become used to in the past few decades.

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But perhaps we should be wary of reading too much into this first morning.

For a start, freight traffic is notably light at the moment, and even a few early hiccups wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to cause any notable traffic problems.

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New Year’s Day is, unsurprisingly, always pretty quiet.

This year, it’s even more still than normal on the roads around Calais.

It’s quite clear that many hauliers took the decision to reduce the number of journeys they made over the first week or two of 2021, out of fear of disruption.

UK warehouses also bear witness to the fact that plenty of companies were stockpiling goods in December.

We shouldn’t expect to see freight deliveries get back to normal for a week or so.

So will it cope then?

Calais does have new staff, new infrastructure and a new atmosphere – friction has been added to the system, but a great deal is being done to try to mitigate it.

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At Dover, money has been spent on traffic management systems, and their own version of new customs checks.

But they are different approaches, with their own distinct models.

It is the contrasting reaction to those regulatory changes that will matter, though.

While British customs will wave through most freight traffic for the first six months, the European Union is likely to eschew such a light-touch approach.

The French have concentrated on trying to perfect a system of checks that allows lorries to drive straight out of the port if their paperwork is in order.

In Dover, the British have come up with a system that similarly aims to stop a vehicle even getting on to the boat if it doesn’t have the correct authorisation or, at the moment, a negative COVID test.

A truck drives over green and orange lines on the road that are part of the new customs infrastructure for entry into France, in Calais, France, January 1, 2021. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
Lorries arrived in Calais from the UK and drove straight onto the road

The bottom line is that, on the face of it, the delays, and thus the traffic jams, still look a lot more likely to occur in Kent than in Calais.

That is the question that now sits in front of us – about when the newly-installed friction will start to make itself felt, how it will manifest itself, and whether it will show up profound issues, or simply short-term problems that are readily remedied.

By the time the Pride of Kent had docked in Calais, another boat had already left the port, heading in the other direction.

More did so over the course of the day, watched by dog-walkers and joggers pounding along the cost.

By then, hundreds of lorries had already crossed the Channel, in both directions, courtesy of overnight Eurostar shuttles.

The first driver to be waved through into France was a 62-year-old Romanian, who said he was pleased to be making history.

For the moment, the spectre of cross-channel disruption is the dog that hasn’t barked. Not yet, anyway.

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