Northern France insists it’s ready for Brexit after sounding alarm

Northern France, with its huge ports and historic trading links to the UK, has more to fear than most if Britain makes a messy exit from the European Union, but the region's chief insists everything is ready, even if there's no deal.

Northern France insists it's ready for Brexit after sounding alarm
Photo: AFP

For months, politicians on both sides of the narrow stretch of sea that separates France and Britain have been warning about the consequences of a disorderly “no deal” Brexit, from transport chaos to major trade disruption.

But local leader Xavier Bertrand (pictured below with President Emmanuel Macron), who until recently feared monster traffic jams himself around the port of Calais, now predicts that cars, trucks and trains will continue flowing smoothly to Britain whatever the outcome of the tortuous Brexit negotiations.

“From our point of view, for the ports and the tunnel, we will be ready,” Bertrand told AFP in Lille, the capital of the Hauts-de-France region that sits just 27 kilometres (17 miles) from southern England at the narrowest point of the Channel.

“Perhaps having sounded the alarm, that woke everyone up,” said the head of the region since 2015, a right-wing independent who is widely viewed as having national, perhaps even presidential, ambitions.

Finding solutions for Brexit, which will in theory see Britain leave the common customs system of the European Union on March 29, has entailed 
forward-planning, extra resources and technology, he explained.

Around two million trucks head to Britain every year on ferries from Calais, while an estimated 17 percent of all goods exported from Britain travel in the opposite direction through Dover.

Bertrand says that truckers will be encouraged to fill out their customs paperwork on a new online platform before arriving at Calais or the nearby port of Dunkirk — which will speed up the loading of boats.

Anyone without papers will be stopped kilometres from the coast in newly created holding areas where customs officials — an extra 700 are being recruited nationally — will assist with the formalities.

New facial recognition technology will also be deployed to speed up passport controls.

READ ALSO: The four-million truck question – Brexit dilemma facing northern France

'Pragmatism' needed

Problems, if there are any, are likely to come from the British side — or EU headquarters in Brussels, Bertrand believes.

“I know that for Dover it is more difficult,” he said, referring to physical restrictions imposed by the white cliffs surrounding the town. “The access to their port is more difficult.”

And he has pleaded for “pragmatism” from EU leaders and officials dealing with the process of detaching Britain from a trading bloc it joined more than 
40 years ago.  

The biggest error would be to insist on re-instating inspections on food and animals being transported between the countries, given that the health and 
safety norms are currently the same.

“If the Brits change their norms, then we'll change our controls, but until then, let's show some common sense,” he said.

And any attempt to introduce visas for Britons travelling to continental Europe, and vice versa, would also be impossible to manage in the short-term.

“We'd need hundreds of border agents who won't be there for March 29 nor even for 2020,” he said.

Brexit business

Further ahead, once Britain's divorce from the EU is finally agreed, Bertrand sees business opportunities, like his political rivals in areas of Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands which also sit across the sea from Britain.

On his Twitter account, he trumpets every new investment announced by a British company, from drugmaker AstraZeneca to metals group Liberty House and 
most recently a driving experience group called Palmer Sport.

“It's not about going to poach them,” Bertrand said. “When you see friends in difficulty you shouldn't try to take advantage.”

But he's clear that Brexit will have an economic cost for Britain and that the Hauts-de-France region, with its cheap real estate and manufacturing base, particularly in the car industry, could benefit.

“If they want to leave, they'll have the easiest conditions with us,” he claimed.

He has already proposed a low-tax trade zone to attract companies to the area around the port of Calais and the entrance to the Channel tunnel, which 
has provided a high-speed rail link between Britain and the continent since 1994.

“The president (Emmanuel Macron) has said yes,” Bertrand said.

A new international school in Lille is also part of efforts to make the city more attractive to British executives, who can reach London in one hour 
and 20 minutes by train.

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.