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From ferries to Eurostar: How Brexit has hit travel between France and the UK

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From ferries to Eurostar: How Brexit has hit travel between France and the UK
Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP

The effects of the UK's exit from the EU continue to be felt on travel between France and the UK, two years on from the end of the Brexit transition period - and it's likely there is worse to come.

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When it comes passenger travel between France and the UK, there have been three main changes since the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1st 2020; stricter and more time-consuming border checks, passport stamping for non-residents and a passport requirement for French/EU citizens.

Travel to France: What has changed since Brexit?

And these changes have also had a knock-on effect on the transport services and links between France and the UK.

The UK was never part of the Schengen zone, so passport checks happened at the UK-France border even pre-Brexit, but there are now extra rules in place.

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For Brits coming into France who do not have a French visa or residency card, their passports must now be stamped in order to enforce the '90-day rule' - pre Brexit there was no limit on how long people can spend here. Passport stamping is more time-consuming than simply having to check a passport and this - combined with other extra checks such as pet passports or goods imports - mean that crossing a border point is now a more time-consuming process.

French or EU citizens wishing to enter the UK now need a passport - previously an ID card was sufficient. Because the ID card issued to all French citizens is enough to travel around the whole of the EU, only around half of French people have a passport. 

The Covid pandemic coincided with the end of the Brexit transition period, so it's not always easy to pick apart the effects of each event, but here is what transport bosses say about the impact of Brexit on services.

Eurostar

The Eurostar is in trouble, and the company CEO says two things are to blame; Brexit and the pandemic.

In a revealing written statement to British MPs last year, former Eurostar CEO Jacques Damas said that peak capacity at both London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord was 30 percent less than it was pre-Brexit, because of the increased infrastructure needed to check and stamp the passports of travellers.

He said: “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can only process a maximum of 1,500 passengers per hour, against 2,200 in 2019.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.

“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid to long-term.”

The main effect on passengers is twofold - fewer services and higher prices in order to keep the company afloat.

As anyone who has travelled on the service will know, check-in spaces at both London and Paris are quite limited, and Damas says that in order to prevent huge queues the trains will have to keep running at a limited capacity.

Several services have also been cut - including the direct route to Disneyland Paris, special ski trains and stops at Ashford in the UK - as the company battles to stay afloat, its woes compounded by huge commercial loans it was forced to take out to stay afloat during the pandemic. 

Damas's successor as CEO at Eurostar Gwendoline Cazenave also revealed that peak time morning services between Paris and London are forced to operate with hundreds of empty seats due to the post-Brexit processing times meaning border control cannot process passengers quickly enough.

“The pity is we cannot offer enough seats because of these station bottlenecks,” Cazenave said.

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Chief commercial officer, François Le Doze admitted the caps on seat numbers were pushing prices up.

As well as higher prices Brexit also meant passengers are advised to arrive much earlier at either St Pancras or Gare du Nord - 90 minutes before departure - compared to 2019 when 30 minutes was usually enough. 

Channel ferry ports

Just as the Eurostar operators are finding, the extra passport control checks are simply taking more time, and at peak times this means queues. 

The UK-France border is unique in Europe, in that British and French border officials work together in the ports of Dover and Folkestone, as well as at London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord stations.

This arrangement - due to the Le Touquet agreement - means that if you're boarding a ferry in Dover your passport will be checked twice, first by British officials and then by French, but when you arrive into Calais you will simply drive off. The same applies in reverse.

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This makes traffic more fluid on arrival, but the double passport checks can see long queues at check-in. The start of the summer season in 2022 (the first time that traffic returned to normal after the pandemic) saw queues of more than six hours at Dover. Many were quick to blame French officials for arriving late for work, but longer check-in times means that any delay can quickly escalate. 

At peak times passengers at Dover have been told to allow for up to two hours to complete all checks before departure.

Eurotunnel trains

As mentioned above the longer processing times at passport control have also affected the Eurotunnel shuttle service between Calais and Folkestone. It now takes drivers longer to pass through the processing checks given the extra post-Brexit passport checks.

Folkestone's Channel Tunnel port was also labelled "the hotspot of holiday hell" in July 2022 when it was hit by the same kind of travel chaos and mammoth delays as the nearby ferry port at Dover.

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Channel island ferries  

Travel between the UK and Channel islands has been unaffected by Brexit since the islands are UK crown dependancies, but travel between France and the islands (a distance of around 60km) now requires a passport.

The Jersey Minister for Home Affairs, Deputy Helen Miles, announced via press release that French visitors to the island will no longer need to present a valid passport to visit for a day trip as part of a new provisional scheme.

Instead, French day travellers will be able to travel on commercial ferries using just a national ID card. 

Miles explained that the objective is for the scheme to be put into practice prior to the start of the summer season (which typically begins in April) this year. In September, the programme will be judged and a more permanent decision will be announced.

The move comes after local authorities in the French département of Manche said that visitor numbers from France to the islands have halved since Brexit, blaming the requirement for a passport, which many of their usual passengers do not have.

Prior to 2019, boats going to and from the French mainland carried at least 110,000 people per year. In 2022, only 40,000 passengers made the journey, Olivier Normand, the sales manager of Manche Îles Express, told Actu France.

The local ferry service is subsidised by Manche authorities, who said they may have to axe the line altogether if a solution was not found prior to the summer season. 

Local authorities in France have said they are hopeful about the provisional scheme lifting passport requirements to Jersey, but are still calling for the same to be made available for the neighbouring island of Guernsey. 

Flights 

Flights have been the least affected by the post-Brexit changes, largely because airports already had lengthy and time-consuming check-in and security processes in place, and having to check in several hours before your flight time was normal.

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School trips

The UK used to be a major destination for school trips by French groups, particularly schools in northern France which could make a day trip to the UK.

However the passport requirement makes things much more difficult for schools, since many of their pupils won't have a passport. Visa rules also means that any child in the class who is not a French citizen may require a visa in order to visit. The extra paperwork has proved too much of a burden to many teachers, who have stopped UK trips altogether.

More problems to come?

Usually you would expect things to get better as everyone gets used to new systems, but several transport bosses have sounded the alarm about new systems due to come into effect later this year. 

These are two changes to how the EU polices its external borders - which since Brexit includes the UK-France border - known as EES and ETIAS.

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You can read the full details HERE - but they include the introduction of a one-off €7 visa for tourists and biometric checks at the border. 

Just like the changes already in place, they will simply be more complicated and time-consuming at the border - and Channel port bosses are particularly worried because the process does not appear to be designed with car passengers in mind.

The boss of the Port of Dover told The Local that he fears "queues throughout Kent" when the first part of the process - EES - comes into effect. This was due to start in May, but has now been pushed back to later in 2023. 

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