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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

Long queues at Channel ports have caused misery for thousands of holidaymakers - and an exchange of blame between the British and French governments. John Lichfield looks at who is really to blame and how the crisis can be solved.

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit
French border police at the UK border. Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

Let’s get one thing straight about the dire straits in Dover.

The long queues to pass through French passport control are not the fault of France – much less a deliberate plot by President Emmanuel Macron (as some UK newspapers suggest).

Strictly-speaking, they are not the “fault” of Brexit either. They are the fault of successive British governments who have failed to prepare for Brexit and failed to educate the British public on what Brexit means.

Leaving the EU, according to the Brexiteer gospel, has no downsides. When that lie is found out, the response is always more lies.

Yes, delays in the Channel Tunnel did prevent a full staffing of French passport-control booths for a couple of hours on Friday. Yes, that did help to build the queues of Calais-bound cars to epic proportions.

But that was only briefly responsible for the tail-backs at Dover port and not at all responsible for the similar mayhem at the Channel Tunnel terminal near Folkestone.

A former senior British official with experience of Franco-British border issues tells me: “This (problem) was nothing to do with under-staffing by the Police aux Frontières. That only seems to have lasted less than two hours.”

READ ALSO Are the French really to blame for Dover traffic chaos?

The fundamental cause was the extra time it takes to clear and stamp a British passport now the UK is no longer in the European Union – 30 seconds instead of three seconds. The infrastructure at Dover and Folkestone has not been changed because the UK government refused to do so.

The jams were made worse by the fact that the Kent motorways were already choked by stacked France-bound trucks. These are permanent jams caused by the government’s failure to accept the consequences of its decision to impose the most radical form of Brexit by abandoning the EU single market.

 The French police had 200 officers on duty in Calais and Folkestone last weekend – almost double the normal number.

They could not send more. There are not enough French passport booths and traffic lanes at either Dover or Folkestone  to cope at peak periods with the extended post-Brexit passport checks.

Will UK-France travel continue to be a nightmare all summer?

 The French government and the port authorities have been pointing this out for at least two years. 

In 2020, the UK government refused to spend £33 million (€39 million) on port improvements in the cramped Dover port, which would, inter alia, have doubled the space for French passport control.

Both the candidates to be the next British prime minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have lied. They say that the blockages are entirely the fault of France. The British tabloid press prefers to personalise its mendacity. They suggest that Emmanuel Macron personally took time away from the Ukraine, energy and cost of living crises to plot to ruin British holidays.

Why did French police insist on checking every passport? Why not wave British cars through, as they once did?

There is some evidence that the French did waive the rules at the weekend to help clear the backlog. But that cannot be a permanent solution. Post-Brexit, France has a duty under EU law to stamp British passports to ensure that those without residence permits are not overstaying their 90-day allowance.

The huge blockages of last weekend are, therefore, likely to be repeated next weekend and every weekend this summer.

There is another aspect of the Dover and Folkestone crisis which the British media largely ignores. The French passport controls are on the English side of the Channel because that suits the British government.

They are part of a swap deal agreed in the Le Touquet treaty in 2003. By having British passport controls on the French side of the Channel, asylum seekers could be prevented from reaching British soil and claiming asylum.

READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet agreement and why do some French politicians want to scrap it?

There was no particular advantage to the French in having their passport checks in Kent but that was the reciprocal deal that President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at the time.

As a result, French police take the tunnel shuttle daily over to the English side. Signal problems delayed the arrival of some of the officers on Friday – providing the UK government with a convenient lie.

Some French politicians are already campaigning for the Le Touquet treaty to be scrapped. President Macron did so before he was president.

The latest outbreak of blame-the-French nonsense in Britain will no doubt strengthen the hand of the anti-Le Touquet camp. It would be much easier (although expensive) for France to build extra passport-checking capacity on the Calais side of the straits.

That would also mean that asylum seekers could reach England before their passports are checked. That would doubtless displease the Daily Mail.

In truth, France is unlikely to abandon the Le Touquet treaty. Even more migrants and asylum-seekers would be attracted to the Pas-de-Calais. They would still be blocked from crossing by steep UK penalties on Eurotunnel and the ferry companies for carrying unauthorised passengers.

There is another reason why the French border will probably remain in Kent. The EU is introducing a system of electronic visas for non-EU travellers.

READ ALSO Passport scans and €7 fees: What is changing for EU travel?

In theory that could ease the problems in Dover. It might make things even worse if many travellers turn up without buying their €7, three-year visa in advance.

At least if they are stopped in Dover, they can be go straight home. If they were stopped in Calais, they would have to be “sent back across the Channel”, which might cause even greater problems.

There is no short-term solution to the Dover crisis. A mid-term solution is possible – a doubling of the space for French passport checks, now restricted to 12 lanes.

But that would require the British government to tell the truth about Brexit and to admit that leaving the EU can be painful and costs money.

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POLITICS

Voting rights for foreigners in France back on political agenda

Foreigners living in France could get the right to vote in certain elections if a newly-created bill passes through parliament.

Voting rights for foreigners in France back on political agenda

The newly elected president of the National Assembly’s law commission calmly lobbed a 40-year-old electoral hand-grenade into the political discourse of the summer – and then went on holiday.

Sacha Houlié, MP for the Vienne and a member of Macron’s LREM party, filed a bill on Monday that would, if passed, allow non-EU citizens living in France to vote and stand for office in local elections. 

Under current electoral legislation, only French citizens can vote in presidential and parliamentary elections; EU citizens in France can vote in local and European elections; and non-EU citizens have no voting rights in France whatsoever. 

EU citizens can also stand for office in local elections, but are barred from becoming mayor or running for a seat in the Assembly.

Since Brexit, Britons in France have not been allowed to vote in local or  local office, any many Brits who were on their local councils had to resign because they were no longer EU citizens.

Many countries limit voting for their citizens who are out of the country, so non-EU citizens living in France often do not have the right to vote in any country.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and the far-right Rassemblement National wasted little time criticising Houlié’s bill.

Darminin’s entourage said that the minister was “firmly opposed” to the idea.

The far-right party went further. “We have crossed the limits of indecency and incomprehension of what the French are asking for,” Rassemblement national spokesperson Laurent Jacobelli told Franceinfo, echoing the sentiment of the party’s interim president Jordan Bardella, who insisted the passing of the bill would mark the, “final dispossession of the French from their country”.

Houlié said: “The right to vote for European Union nationals in local elections already exists in France. No one is surprised that a Spaniard or a Bulgarian can vote in municipal elections. But it has surprised many people that the British can no longer do it since Brexit.”

Given the current shape of the Parliament in France, it seems unlikely that the latest bill will pass. But it is far from the first time it has been on the table.

François Mitterrand had pledged during his presidential campaign in 1981 to ensure “the right to vote in municipal elections after five years of presence on French territory.”

But, in the face of opposition from the right, he backed down from this particular promise. 

In October 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, tried to move forward with an electoral plan that would have allowed non-EU citizens certain voting rights – but was blocked by his own UMP party.

François Hollande re-launched the proposal during his 2012 campaign, before quietly letting it go in the face of opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.

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