France to trial no-deal Brexit customs system at Calais

France will start trials from mid-September in Calais of the electronic customs system that it will put in place for freight crossing the Channel if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. Announcing the plans to test the system ahead of a possible no-deal Brexit on 31 October, Gerald Darmanin, the French minister in charge of customs, told French radio station RTL: “For a month, we’re going to pretend there is Brexit. For a lot of companies, we are going to have a sort of dress rehearsal so that we are ready at the end of October.”

His comments came ahead of a meeting with Michael Gove, the UK minister co-ordinating “no-deal” Brexit planning, in Calais on Friday afternoon to showcase France’s preparations. These include 700 extra customs officers and a “smart border” to ease the burden on the 100,000 French companies that Paris estimates trade with the UK. The UK economy is heavily reliant on road freight that comes from Calais — via ferry to Dover and through the Channel tunnel to Folkestone — carrying just-in-time and perishable items, such as car parts and food.

Under a no-deal Brexit newly introduced customs controls could create a choke point as lorries converge on either side of the Channel. A recent leak of the UK’s contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, known as Operation Yellowhammer, found that between 50 and 85 per cent of lorries travelling between Calais and Dover were not expected to be ready to cope with new French custom controls. The documents estimated that this could lead to a reduction in traffic flows of between 40 and 60 per cent.

For a month, we’re going to pretend there is Brexit.

For a lot of companies, we are going to have a sort of dress rehearsal so that we are ready at the end of October

“Our duty is to prepare our country for all scenarios,” Mr Darmanin added on Twitter. “To be ready on D-Day to ensure the smooth flow of trade, including in case of Brexit without an agreement.” He said the French system would allow companies to fill out an online declaration of goods heading for the UK before the trucks set off. This would generate documentation, including bar codes, that would feed into the electronic customs system and combine with number plate recognition technology.

“Without stopping at the border, your goods will go directly to Britain . . . There will be no queues of dozens and dozens of kilometres,” said Mr Darmanin. France is increasingly anticipating a no-deal Brexit. “Given how things are going, it’s probable,” Aurelie de Montchalin, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, said on BFM television on Friday.

The risk of a no-deal Brexit has jumped sharply since Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said he would suspend parliament for a month, leaving lawmakers less time to scupper his plans to take the UK out of the bloc on October 31 regardless of whether he can reach agreement with the EU.

With no transition period, UK firms would have to start trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms from November 1, with goods theoretically subject to tariffs in both directions instead of passing freely within the customs union.

“It is simply more bureaucratic than when [we trade with] Belgium or Spain,” said Mr Darmanin, likening the trade terms that Britain could face with the EU at the French border to those France has with South Africa.

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