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France not ready for Brexit, say French customs agents protesting in Calais

A picture taken at 10km from Dunkerque on the A16 highway between Dunkerque and Calais shows trucks stuck in a traffic jam on March 4, 2019 due to extensive controls by the customs officers protesting over the lack of staff and material ahead of Brexit
A picture taken at 10km from Dunkerque on the A16 highway between Dunkerque and Calais shows trucks stuck in a traffic jam on March 4, 2019 due to extensive controls by the customs officers protesting over the lack of staff and material ahead of Brexit AFP

Since Monday, French customs agents have started checking lorries transporting goods between France and Britain, in a go-slow movement aimed at drawing attention to low pay and what they say is a lack of preparation for Brexit. The UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March, and those tasked with implementing the border warn that they are overworked and understaffed.

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“We are absolutely not ready,” Vincent Thomazo, secretary general of the Unsa customs trade union, told RFI. “For a while, agents have been ringing alarm bells, saying that infrastructure is not ready… The offices where the agents will be working have not been built. Agents have not even been assigned.”

Since Monday, members of his and four other unions have been zealously checking the documents of lorries passing through the ports of Calais and Dunkirk and going through the Eurotunnel under the Channel, to show what will happen when greater controls are put in place once Britain leaves the EU.

“We’ve only been looking at transport documents. Very few have even been opening the lorries,” he said. And even that has slowed down traffic, causing kilometre-long delays along the highways leading to the Eurotunnel. “You just need to check a few and it causes traffic jams. Lorries stack up one behind the other.”

On Wednesday border agents in Paris joined the movement, taking more time to check travellers’ documents at the entrance to the Eurostar trains between Paris and London, causing long lines and delaying trains.

Not enough staff

The government is recruiting 700 additional customs agents, says Thomazo, but he warns that they will not all be deployed in the north of France to address the new border.

“It’s largely insufficient, when you see the traffic that happened when we put in place our movement,” he said.

On Brexit day extra agents will be present, to show that everything is ready. “But after a few weeks or months, the temporary reinforcements will leave, and it will be crazy. We will be incapable of checking. The means given make it impossible.”

The protest movement is part of a general malaise among customs agents, who are asking for more overnight pay and a danger allowance.

“Brexit is a trigger. It has made obvious the unease accumulated by customs officers over years,” said Thomazo.

French Budget minister Gérald Darmanin said on Wednesday that he would meet the trade unions representing customs agents at the beginning of next week.

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