Brexit sends waves of anxiety to French shores

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Fisherman Abdou Diame from the fishing boat Jeremy-Florent II unloads his catch Thursday at the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Thibault Camus / Associated press

BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France – Long lines of trucks carrying stocks for British companies block the highways leading to the port of Calais in northern France, while in the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, the French fishermen are pulling their lines and fear that battles over fishing rights will soon break out.

On the north coast of France, the uncertainty of Brexit is causing waves of chaos and frustration.

Just three weeks before Britain is completely out of the European Union, no one knows whether there will be a post-Brexit trade deal or a chaotic economic split between the two sides. Britain left the EU on January 31 but remains in its huge market until the end of the year. This means that, barring a trade deal, New Years’ Day could spell a hangover for businesses on both sides of the Channel.

For Mathieu Pinto, a 28-year-old French fisherman, a no-deal Brexit will have a disastrous impact on his right to fish in British waters, where he says he earns “between 70% and 80%” of his annual income.

Pinto is based in Boulogne, a French coastal town, which is home to the largest fish processing center in Europe. He had just returned from a night of sea snail or whelk fishing when he spoke to The Associated Press. He fears his days earning a living in the family business will be numbered.

“(A no-deal Brexit) will already affect us enormously. And then we are going to have to share our French waters with foreigners as well, ”he declared.

That would mean fighting for fish in French maritime territory alongside the EU’s northern neighbors of the Netherlands and Belgium, which he says could create an incredibly tense situation. There are simply not enough outlets to circulate without access to UK waters, he said.

“There will be war. Let’s not hide it. There will be war, ”Pinto said.

Ireland and Denmark are also among those directly affected by the potential shutdown of UK waters.

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Fishermen from the Jeremy-Florent II clean their net on Thursday at the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Under current EU rules, EU countries can fish in UK maritime territory, as they have for decades. Thibault Camus / Associated press

Under current EU rules, EU countries can currently fish in UK maritime territory, as they have for decades. But the overexploitation of these rules – and of the seas – has caused fish numbers to drop sharply. And so were the British fishermen. Saving British waters for British fishermen has become a rallying cry, fueling the Brexit vote for the UK to leave the bloc. Since then, fishing rules have remained a major issue at the heart of the Brexit impasse.

Meanwhile in Calais, trails of truck exhaust by the side of the road illustrate the path to Brexit is, literally, littered with uncertainties.

And this has prompted UK businesses to stockpile goods, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of trucks heading to the port of Calais and the underwater tunnel to Britain in recent weeks. French police are delaying hundreds of trucks on the side of the road to cope with the surge in traffic. It’s a perfect storm on the highways, coming just as a tourism crisis linked to the coronavirus has reduced the number of ferries carrying vehicles crossing the Channel.

Sébastien Rivera, senior regional manager of the National Road Transport Federation, an industrial group that represents some 350 companies that send their goods to the UK, called the situation “catastrophic”.

“For about three weeks, we’ve seen an increase in the flow of traffic to Britain due to storage. The platforms, whether it is the port or the tunnel (Euro), do not have the capacity to absorb this increase in traffic, ”he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that there was a “strong possibility” that negotiations on a new economic relationship with the EU to enter into force on January 1 would fail. He and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set a deadline on Sunday to decide whether to continue talking or prepare for a no-deal breakup.

Failure to secure a trade deal would mean higher tariffs and other barriers that would hurt both sides, although most economists believe the UK economy would be hit the hardest because the UK does nearly half of its trade with the 27-nation bloc.

Rivera said the sheer uncertainty of the nature of the trade rules has resulted in enormous stress and additional costs for the transportation industry, not to mention the hours of wasted time truck drivers have spent stuck in traffic jams.

“It’s not fair that we are three weeks away and have no answers,” he said.


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