The travel chaos seen around the main Channel ports of England since the end of last week has demonstrated how quickly the arterial link for tourism and trade between Britain and the EU can clog up.
In the first big test for post-Brexit border checks, with thousands of families embarking on their summer holidays, the system failed; the port of Dover declared a “critical incident” last Friday as queues of cars and lorries backed up on the roads of Kent. Chaos then spread to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone.
Brexit has resulted in longer border formalities but does that mean this level of disruption is destined to become a perennial part of the British summer? Or can infrastructure, new technology and political goodwill permanently ease the Channel ports bottleneck?
What’s the root of the problem?
Geography, in a word. More than 4mn trucks and 2.5mn passenger vehicles are funneled through Dover’s terminals and the nearby Channel Tunnel at Folkestone every year.
Even before Brexit, this created a situation that was inherently fragile: bad weather, industrial action or a road accident on the routes that serve both ports, which are just 13km apart, can bring the system to a rapid standstill.
But leaving the EU has added another layer of stress to a system that was already operating at its limits as all travelers’ passports must now be checked and stamped. Dover says this has increased typical processing times for a family car by over 50 percent — from 58 seconds to 90 seconds.
Last Friday, it was a shortage of French border police to check passports that tipped the system over the edge.
Can we digitize the process to make it faster?
The government has set out a 2025 UK Border Strategy that it promises will use technology to create “the world’s most effective border”, including a system known as Electronic Travel Authorization it says will “speed passenger journeys through ports”.
The EU has a similar scheme, ETIAS, that will also require passengers to submit personal and travel information ahead of time. That is due to come into force in May next year.
But crucially neither of these systems is expected to cut processing times, according to officials at Dover and Folkestone. If anything, they will have the opposite effect when planned new biometric checks come into force, requiring passengers to submit to fingerprint and face scans, they warned.
“It will be an additional bureaucracy for travelers, but neither the EU nor the Home Office has said it will cut transaction times at the border, because it won’t,” said Tim Reardon, head of EU exit for the Port of Dover.
Why can’t they just build more passport booths?
Geography, again. Dover and the Eurotunnel terminal have no room to expand because of their respective locations.
Dover had applied for a £33mn grant to double its passport booths from five to 10, and restructure traffic flows at the port, but was turned down by the UK government. It still plans this development, but it will take time. For now, it has four temporary additional kiosks. Reardon says this solution achieves only half the intended additional capacity.
Folkestone has similar problems and is currently trying to find a way to “squeeze in additional EU controls” in the space available if EU biometric checks come into force next year, said John Keefe of Getlink, which operates the Channel Tunnel.
There are other measures that could reduce pressure and build resilience into the system, but they would take time to implement.
Natalie Chapman, the head of policy for the south of England at Logistics UK, the trade body, said expanding the A2 road into Dover would help to “future-proof” the Kent corridor.
More lorry parks would also help manage traffic flows, according to the Kent Resilience Forum. Keefe at Getlink said improving the rail-freight connections with the Channel Tunnel would build capacity.
They all warned these were not instant fixes.
What are hauliers doing to adapt?
Brexit has turbocharged digital customs solutions, according to Robert Hardy, CEO of EORI, a customs clearance business, with hauliers required to upload their paperwork in advance.
The government is working to create a “single trade window” to further simplify processes. “Freight is moving away from declarations at the border, to the ingestion of data en route,” says Hardy.
But this is not a magic bullet, since the system is only as good as its weakest link, warns Shane Brennan of the Cold Chain Federation, as the constant queues of lorries outside Dover this year have demonstrated.
In 2021, Dover’s emergency traffic management plan was implemented 69 times, according to National Highways — but it has been used more than 100 times in the first seven months of this year.
So what is the solution?
On one level, none. As the French authorities have warned, Brexit created inevitable friction. “People have to learn to live in a world that has changed,” Georges-François Leclerc, the senior government official responsible for the region around France’s Channel ports, warned over the weekend.
But even with the constraints of Brexit, industry executives insisted there were political solutions.
Both Reardon and Keefe argued an EU-UK political agreement to return to “light-touch” checks for holiday passengers was the obvious solution, with passengers checked on a risk-based system, just like freight.
Brennan said hauliers had repeatedly called for the UK to sign a veterinary agreement with the bloc to reduce the level of border checks for food and agricultural products — something the opposition Labor party has promised it would do in office.
Downing Street denied the problems last weekend were necessarily caused by Brexit and called on France to apply border checks “proportionately and sensibly”. But with EU-UK relations locked in a bitter stand-off over Northern Ireland and goodwill in very short supply, there seems little prospect of an immediate rapprochement.
As Clément Beaune, the French transport minister, observed on Twitter after Friday’s chaos. “France is not responsible for Brexit.”