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In Calais, sadness but serenity as Britain bows out of EU

4 min
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Calais (France) (AFP)

In the French city of Calais, so close to Britain that you can see the white cliffs of Dover on a clear day, locals are resigned to Brexit but hopeful that the port will continue to be a linchpin in cross-Channel relations.

As the main staging post for ferry and train crossings from France to Britain, Calais is emotionally and physically linked to Britain, a hub for travellers ranging from truck drivers to day-trippers in search of French wine and migrants seeking to cross to the UK.

Calais was even once part of England, from its conquest in the mid-fourteenth century by Edward III to its loss under Mary Tudor in 1558. The English queen is said to have then declared that after she died Calais would be found "in her heart".

French residents of Calais, where the cold damp wind blowing on the seafront Friday seemed distinctly British, did not seem overly worried about Britain's seismic departure from the European Union.

"We were always very friendly with the British and it will stay that way," said Christophe, who works in a cosmetics shop.

"I go to Scotland every year with my dog, and I am just worried about him. It is my only real worry."

- 'Won't change much' -

Taking shelter from the winter weather in a cafe, Dan Snowden, a British resident of Calais since 1999, appeared much more concerned.

"When I arrived in 1999, everything was easy. Now, all of a sudden, we find out that this is not our home any more and what we took for granted is now in question."

"For social security, education, pensions, accessing services: we don't know what is going to happen," he said, adding he now plans to ask for French nationality for himself and his family.

The region has also long been a magnet for people seeking to smuggle themselves to Britain in one of the tens of thousands of trucks and cars that travel daily between the two countries on ferries and trains.

"The protection measures for the borders could hardly be tougher, we don't think that will change much," said Francois Guennoc, the deputy head of a migrants shelter.

"Some people hope that customs controls will create traffic jams on the roads" that could make it easier for migrants to stow themselves away.

But with Britain remaining in the EU customs union during an 11-month transitional period, there will be no border checks for now, "so it’s a bit of a vain hope," Guennoc said.

At a meal for migrants organised by the Salam NGO, George, a young Eritrean aged 19, said he was not even aware of Brexit.

After 10 unsuccessful attempts to cross the Channel he just wanted to get to Britain.

- 'Calm has returned' -

Meanwhile, any lingering fears that Britain's exit from the EU would trigger transport chaos came to nothing Friday, with both sides having reached an agreement in October on an orderly, phased withdrawal.

Little change is expected at the Channel Tunnel during the 11-month transition period beginning Saturday, with the status quo to be maintained on trade and travel.

"From Saturday, for travellers and companies, nothing is going to change," said Gilbert Beltran, head of customs for the northern Dunkirk region.

"But it is necessary that companies continue to prepare."

At the end of the transition period on January 1, 2021, new smart technology on the borders will automatically scan the registration numbers of passing lorries and link them with customs declarations filled out online by exporters.

If there is any anomaly in the data, the trucks will be told to park for further checks.

"The year 2019 was very turbulent due to the delays to Brexit. Here, calm has returned, the sea is flat and we know that Britain is leaving the European Union," said Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the local ports authority.

"For me, Brexit is not chaos, not a barrier. My grandchildren will know Britain as I knew it when I was young, when there were customs controls. It will be like it was then," he added.

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