Long summer queues at the border risk becoming the “new normal” after Brexit, holidaymakers have been warned, as a fierce diplomatic row erupted with France over the lengthy tailbacks affecting Dover.
Both Tory leadership candidates rushed to blame a shortage of French border staff for delays that saw some travellers waiting for hours. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak said the French “need to stop blaming Brexit and start getting the staff required to match demand”. Foreign secretary Liz Truss said she was in touch with her French counterparts, blaming a “lack of resources at the border”.
However, diplomats, French officials and border staff warned that the delays were a result of post-Brexit border arrangements struggling to cope in their first major test since Britain left the EU. It comes after holidaymakers faced extensive queues for a second day at Dover on Saturday, while there was also congestion on several major motorways as families across the country set out on their summer holidays.
New rules require all passports to be checked – a pressure that a series of experts regarded as the biggest factor that could not easily be fixed. Clément Beaune, the French transport minister, said yesterday that he was cooperating with transport secretary Grant Shapps to ease the issues, but added: “France is not responsible for Brexit.”
It follows frustration among Port of Dover executives that the government turned down a £33m bid to help upgrade the port to cope with the additional pressures of Brexit. Instead, it was given just £33,000 in December 2020, equivalent to 0.1% of the initial request. The port warned at the time that the “clock is ticking”. Roger Gough, leader of Kent county council, said: “We are still on a bit of a knife-edge. We have a fragile system at Dover port and it does not take much for it to fall over. The pressures are intense and there is concern it could go on for some time.”
Lord Ricketts, a former ambassador to France, said that the delays were an inevitable outcome of the bureaucracy created by Brexit.
“The shortage of French border force officials is a short-term, tactical problem,” he said. “The long-term, serious issue is that this is the first time we’ve seen the full pressure on the border after Brexit. Even if it was a full complement of the French border force there would still be massive delays, because Dover port can’t cope with the volume.
“The underlying reality is that no matter how many they have, given the size of the port, given the fact that the government failed to invest in expanding the facilities, it is going to be like this – this will be the new normal.”
He said that good relations and cooperation with the French was the best way of easing the issues, but added: “Of course, the French will be watching this and will say, ‘yet again, we’ve become a political football in the party leadership issue’.”
Lucy Moreton, professional officer at the Immigration Services Union, also said it was predictable that Brexit would cause more disruption because of the additional checks required, adding: “This is the time it’s chosen to bite.”
Pierre-Henri Dumont, a Les Républicains MP whose constituency includes Calais, told Sky News: “Because of Brexit, we need to have more checks on passports. We need to stamp every passport. We need to have checks on who is coming into the European Union.
“[It is] something we didn’t have to do before Brexit. What we are experiencing is not because of [the] bad face of the French authorities, but because of Brexit.” He said there would be disruption for years if there was no major “transformation” of the Port of Dover.
There are now warnings that delays could become even longer with the planned introduction of biometric checks, under the EU’s new Entry/Exit System. Intense discussions have already been taking place between the Home Office and French authorities over their introduction after warnings they could lead to queues of 17 miles.
However, the Observer understands that the introduction of the new system is likely to be delayed again as officials attempt to ensure that their introduction causes as little disruption as possible. The new system may mean people will be required to leave their vehicles for the biometric checks. A Commons transport committee report on the road freight supply chain warned last month: “The introduction of the EU’s new Entry/Exit System later in 2022 threatens to cause further confusion, disruption and delay at the UK’s border, particularly at the Port of Dover. It is crucial the government gets a grip of this issue.”
The Labour chair, Anneliese Dodds, said: “While the Conservatives fight among themselves, families are stuck waiting hours on end to begin their family holiday as the chaos in Dover continues, and once again the government has failed to get a grip.”
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, said: “We now have a zombie government completely incapable of sorting this mess out. The gridlock at Dover is not only having a huge impact on families, but also on businesses and workers already facing soaring prices. Every delay hurts our economy and impacts on our vital tourism industry. Conservative ministers will be rightly blamed.”
A government spokesperson said: “A shortage of French border control staff at the border in Dover, who control entry to France, and exceptionally high numbers of people travelling this weekend have led to roads in Kent becoming extremely busy. We are working closely with French authorities, the Port of Dover, Kent Resilience Forum and police to ease disruption and provide on-the-ground support.
“We strongly recommend passengers check the latest advice from their operators before travelling and, as with any long journey, ensure they have enough water and food provisions with them.”
July 24, 2022 at 12:48AM Michael Savage Jon Ungoed-Thomas Miranda Bryant