London (AFP) – Stationary trucks of ferries and trains rolled over both sides of the English Channel on Friday, on a quiet New Year’s day after an overnight seismic shift in relations between the European Union and Britain.
The busy cargo route between southeast England and northwestern France is on the front line of changes now that the UK has left completely the economic embrace of the 27-nation bloc, the final stage of Brexit.
“For the majority of trucks, they won’t even notice the difference,” said John Cave, a Eurotunnel spokesperson, who carries vehicles under the canal. “There was always a risk that if this happened at a busy time, we might run into some difficulties, but it happens overnight on a bank holiday and a long weekend.”
Britain left the vast single market of the European bloc of people, goods and services at 11 pm London time on New Year’s Eve, in the biggest single economic change the country has seen since World War Two. A new trade deal between the UK and the European Union will lead to restrictions and red tape, but for Brexit supporters, this means restoring national independence from the EU and its network of rules.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described it as “a wonderful moment for this country”.
“We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a video message marking the New Year.
The historic moment passed quietly, as Britain’s lockdown measures against the coronavirus limited mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn. Brexit, which has dominated public debate in Britain for years, has been kept off some front pages of newspapers due to news of the massive vaccination effort against COVID-19, which is spreading across the country.
On the quiet streets of London – which voted strongly to remain in the European Union in Britain’s 2016 referendum – there was little enthusiasm for Brexit.
“I think it’s one of the many disasters this year,” said doctor Matt Steele. “It’s a bad deal. To be honest, I don’t see any positives in that.”
But in coastal Folkestone, at the English end of the Canal Tunnel, retired bank manager David Pinks said he was relieved that the Brexit saga was over.
He said, “It’s been so long that now, I think, is for us to move and go from there.”
The separation comes 11 months after Britain’s exit from the European Union, which left the two sides in a “transition period” during which the rights and rules of the European Union continued to apply to Britain.
The trade deal struck on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations ensures that both sides can continue to buy and sell goods without tariffs or quotas. But companies face bundles of costs and new paperwork, including customs declarations and border checks.
The Port of Dover on the English Channel and the Eurotunnel Tunnel prepared for delays with the introduction of the new measures.
A vital supply route faltered after France closed its borders to UK truck drivers for 48 hours during Christmas week in response to a rapidly spreading type of virus identified in England. About 15,000 truck drivers needed emergency virus testing only to enter France, a process that left many stranded in their trucks for days.
But the pandemic and the weekend meant that traffic through the canals was light on Friday. Britain has also postponed imposing full customs checks for several months so that companies can amend them.
In the French port of Calais, officials said the new computer systems were working fine and that truck drivers had the correct paperwork.
“Brexit … is not synonymous with congestion, as we say in English, nor is it synonymous with traffic disruption, but everyone must do their job,” said Jean-Marc Boissiso, president of the ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur. Mir.
Jean-Marc Theiler, the region’s director of customs, has warned that the border faces a “test of fire” when traffic bounces after the weekend.
Brexit has also brought new checks across the Irish Sea. Twelve trucks skidded off the first ferry that reached Dublin Port from Wales before dawn, to clear new customs checks without delay.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said trade will “fundamentally” change.
“We will now see 80 billion euros ($ 97 billion) worth of trade across the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland disrupted by more controls and advertising, bureaucracy and paperwork, cost and delays.”
Hundreds of millions of people in Britain and the Bloc face changes in their daily lives Life, with new rules for work visas, travel insurance, and pet paperwork.
Years of debate and wrangling await, over everything from fair competition to fishing quotas, as Britain and the European Union settle into their new relationship as friends, neighbors and rivals.
Brexit could have major constitutional repercussions for the UK.
Northern Ireland, which shares borders with European Union member Ireland, remains closely tied to the bloc’s economy under the terms of divorce. So, while goods will continue to flow freely across the Irish land border, there are new checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK over time, which could pull Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK and towards Ireland.
In Scotland, which voted strongly in 2016 to remain in the European Union, Brexit strengthened support for secession from the United Kingdom. The country’s pro-independence prime minister, Nicolas Sturgeon, tweeted: “Scotland will return soon, Europe. Keep the lights on.”
Contributed by video journalists Joe Kearney and Jason Parkinson in Folkestone, England, and Alex Turnbull in Calais, France.
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