Operations return to normal at English Channel port of Dover

LONDON: Officials at the English Channel port of Dover on Sunday said operations had returned to normal, after two days of lengthy delays blamed on post-Brexit border checks. Frustrated holidaymakers were forced to wait for hours to reach the port and board ferries to France on Friday and Saturday, at the start of the busy summer getaway. The UK government blamed France for failing to adequately staff their border posts at the port, prompting a swift denial from Paris.

The Port of Dover said the backlogs of freight and tourists from the last two days had been cleared overnight, although it said Sunday would remain “busy”. Some 72,000 passengers-the equivalent of 200 miles (320 kilometers) of traffic-had gone through the port already this weekend, it added. “With the entire port system working efficiently, including strong support from French border colleagues and ferries running through the night, the Port demonstrated that its summer plan will work for the rest of the holiday period,” the port said in a statement.

Eurotunnel, however, warned of delays to its rail shuttle service between nearby Folkestone and Coquelles in northern France, with motorists facing long queues to get to the terminal. There were fears about chronic delays at Britain’s ports even before the country left the European Union in full on January 1 last year. Brexit ended free movement from Britain to EU member states, reintroducing systematic passport checks and customs controls for the first time in decades.

French border agency staff work alongside their UK counterparts to conduct checks at Dover. Port officials initially said under-staffing of French border posts was to blame for the queues but officials across the Channel denied they were responsible. French lawmakers said checks now took longer because Britain has “third-country” status outside the EU, and urged facilities to be improved at Dover.

Britain’s readiness to cope at the border, including staffing and the introduction of new technology, was repeatedly questioned in the run-up to Brexit taking full effect. Queues of lorries have already been seen at Dover but operations for tourist traffic have not been tested until now because of COVID travel restrictions. Several British newspapers on Sunday said the government turned down a £33-million (39-million-euro, $40-million) bid for upgrades at the port, including new passport control booths.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss laid the blame squarely on Paris, telling her French counterpart Catherine Colonna that “the French authorities have not put enough people on the border.” The situation has added to the bad blood between London and Paris in the wake of Brexit, scotching hopes of a reset after Boris Johnson said earlier this month he was stepping down as premier. “We need to see action from them (the French) to resolve the terrible situation which travelers, including families, are facing,” said Truss, who is currently fighting to succeed Johnson as prime minister.

But Paris has rejected claims that the gridlock was caused by under-staffing and Colonna in her tweet took a more sanguine view of their conversation, describing the talks as “good” and welcoming the “cooperation” to reduce the delays. Colonna also underlined the “need to improve facilities at the Port of Dover.” Tweeting the front page of Britain’s right-wing Daily Telegraph which had the headline “Truss tells France to fix holiday chaos”, France’s Transport Minister Clement Beaune said the French authorities were “mobilized” to ease movement. But in a jab at London, the former Europe minister added: “France is not responsible for Brexit”.

‘More checks than before’

Border checks and extra paperwork for freight traffic were reintroduced when Britain left the European Union last year, ending free movement for people and goods in the bloc. Bottlenecks of lorries at Dover have been seen since then but this summer is the first with unrestricted travel for the public since the lifting of all COVID restrictions.

French lawmaker Pierre-Henri Dumont, whose constituency includes the French Channel port of Calais, called the travel chaos “an aftermath of Brexit”. “We have to run more checks than before,” he told BBC television, predicting it would happen again. Port of Dover chief executive Doug Bannister initially blamed a lack of French border agency staff for the logjam which saw some holidaymakers wait six hours or longer to catch their ferries.

But he conceded there were now “increased transaction times” post-Brexit. The port was confident of handling the demand at peak periods, he added. Brexit figurehead Johnson made “taking back control” of UK borders a rallying call for his “leave” campaign in the 2016 vote on EU membership.

Since becoming prime minister, he has found that more difficult, with record numbers of migrants crossing from northern France in small boats. Lucy Moreton, from the ISU union that represents borders, immigration and customs staff, said the tailbacks were a “reasonably predictable” result of Brexit. “This is the time that it’s chosen to bite,” she told the BBC. Passengers have to go through both UK and French border checks at Dover before boarding ferries to northern France. By 12:45 pm (1145 GMT), the Port of Dover said more than 17,000 passengers had already gone through. – AFP

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