Comings and goings
Brexit is transforming towns and lives in the south of England. The prospect of chaos is looming at the border in Dover. And the inhabitants of two villages in Kent will soon have a new neighbor: a customs post.
When the skies shine blue over the port town of Dover, Stephen Potter enjoys taking walks across its hills. The 61-year-old Brit, a customs officer, lives on the coast. From the heights he can savor the view of the world-famous white cliffs of Dover. For many of his compatriots, these chalk cliffs epitomize patriotism and love of country. It was here that the English defended themselves against attacks from mainland Europe. This rock face marks the dividing line between the island and the continent. Yet it also brings the close ties between the two land masses sharply into focus.
France is only 33 kilometers distant on the other side of the English Channel. On a clear day, Calais is visible to the naked eye. Down at the port, life never stops. A huge ferry has just docked, ready and willing to welcome hundreds of cars on board. As the check-in area is closed for another few minutes, the trucks wait in orderly lines by the ramp, like brightly-hued building blocks in a children’s playset. They come from all over Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany. Finally, the gates open and they wend their way to the ferry. The next leg of their journey will begin on the mainland. On a typical day, some 8,000 trucks hailing from every country in the EU pass through Dover.
Gazing down from the cliffs at the legions of trucks, Stephen Potter can’t help but feel concerned. If the UK and EU are unable to close a trade deal, the traffic might grind to a halt in January, producing the ultimate snarl-up in his hometown. “Every day thousands of trucks arrive on ferries here, disembarking and immediately continuing their journeys,” he says. “But soon they will be making an enforced stop,”he adds. Britain left the European Union on January 31, 2020, but a transition period will remain in force until the end of the year. The British are still following EU rules, allowing cross-border trade to continue smoothly. That, however, will soon change. Once Britain leaves Comings and goings the Customs Union and Single Market, imported goods will have to be checked at the border – to make sure their sales tax and customs duty are paid. At present, nobody quite knows how that will work.
Potter’s main concern is that Dover will become the bottleneck, effectively crippling local traffic. “It won’t last forever, but during the first year the people of Dover could find themselves under siege,” he says. “We use the same A20 and A2 motorways to get out of town.”
“Any agreement is better than no deal.”
Truck driver Steven Jones will definitely be packing more food in the new year when he takes his first trip to the continent. In a worst-case scenario, it could take him up to two days to clear customs if Britain leaves without a deal, the 56-year-old Scot fears. “Imagine being stuck in your vehicle for that long,” he says. He is parked in a lot near Ashford, a town some 20 miles from Dover, waiting for a load due to arrive on the cross-Channel ferry. Jones has vivid memories of a Europe with borders. As a young man he spent a lot of time working on the continent, and now seems almost nostalgic about those years. “I loved all the different currencies, the individual stages between one border and the next. It was all very exciting,” he says. Yet now doubts over the outcome of the negotiations are starting to gnaw at him. Fishing rights are one bone of contention, and here Jones has mixed feelings. “We can’t simply abandon Scotland’s waters,” he says, but he doesn’t want the entire agreement to collapse, either. If that happened, he might have to wait for days on end at the border. “Ultimately any agreement is better than no deal.”
His colleague, 25-year-old Bouda Pectrica from Romania, is also praying for consensus. Otherwise, following Brexit, he too might have to spend two days at the border. In each direction. Currently he alternates between a month on the road and nine days at home. He would like to start a family in Romania soon, but that would be out of the question if he were away for two months at a time. “That’s no life for somebody of my age,” he says.
Tough on small businesses
The uncertainty revolving around Brexit is particularly tough on small businesses. Paul Withers runs a freight-forwarding company on the outskirts of Ashford. “Other firms have more money to invest in new facilities and warehouses, to prepare for the various potential outcomes,” he says. “But we’re a small operation and I don’t want any further outlays until I know exactly what they’re for.” He had already prepared twice for an unregulated departure, only for the negotiations to be extended each time. “That was a real pain. We suddenly had masses of work, and then no orders at all for a month because all the warehouses were full,” Withers says. When asked what he thinks of Brexit, only one word comes to mind: “Frustration.” To prevent the projected mayhem at the Dover border, the British government wants to build customs facilities and parking lots along its A20 and A2 motorways. That will, however, bring major changes to the inhabitants of Ashford and the villages nearby.
In July, Sharon Swandale noticed that several paths near her home village of Mersham had been closed off overnight. Until recently, the fields they crossed had been owned by an insurance company. There were rumors circulating in town that the internet giant Amazon might build a distribution center there. But Brexit changed everything. The British government purchased the site and decided to erect a customs facility and car park accommodating 2,000 trucks. While the project’s official name is MOJO, the local press often calls it the “Farage Garage” – after the nationalist politician Nigel Farage who piloted the Brexit movement. “It was pure coincidence that we found out what was in the pipeline. An official document got leaked,” Swandale says. The decision was made in London, and local government was not involved. In fact, it was kept in the dark until it was too late. The cloak-and-dagger tactics and breakneck pace of the planning angered the villagers, who want a bigger say in the project. Swandale and her group Village Alliance are now campaigning for a “green gap” between their homes and the construction site. In the shape of an uncultivated field.
Expansive, perfectly manicured gardens form rows in Mersham, with old, generously proportioned houses punctuating the trees and hedges. Sharon Swandale’s family has lived
here for 20 years. The inhabitants appreciate the combination of idyllic, rural lifestyle and fast motorways – which give them quick access to London. Her husband works in IT and can easily reach his customers there. It’s a politically conservative area. For over a century now, the Ashford constituency has almost exclusively elected Tory Members of Parliament, with a brief interruption in the 1920s the sole exception.
The locals fly the Union Jack
There are no EU flags wafting from her neighbors’ homes as they do in liberal parts of the capital. Instead the locals fly the Union Jack, the British flag, and have done so since the VE Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945. Lots of locals support Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit. Fifty-nine percent of them voted to leave the EU in 2016. Not even the prospect of a customs post on their doorsteps can change their minds. After all, until 1993 when the EU’s Single Market was launched, a similar facility already existed near Mersham.
Building work on MOJO has just begun. Construction equipment and a team of archaeologists can be seen out in the fields. This area has a long history. “We’ve had finds from the Bronze, Iron and Stone Ages here,” says Paul Bartlett, a Conservative Party councilor from the village of Sevington just a stone’s throw down the road. Work has been temporarily halted after an ancient wall was discovered in the field. It might even predate the Norman Conquest of 1066, the last foreign invasion of mainland Britain. Bartlett, a local history buff, even interrupts the interview to read an email containing an archaeological assessment of the find. After a few seconds he appears visibly downcast. “It’s from the eighteenth or nineteenth century,” he recites. In other words, the wall has no special historical value, having been built more recently than homes in the surrounding villages, some of which can be traced back to the Tudor period.
Soon the area will be unrecognizable. “It’s going to be all action here on January 2,” Bartlett predicts. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will be using part of the site to monitor the quality of food imports. But that operation, Bartlett says, is unlikely to be up and running until mid-2021. The second part of the site is reserved for customs processing. The UK government wants a trust- based electronic system, Bartlett explains. If customs documents are submitted online, only a small number of trucks will need physical checks – ideally a mere 80 a day, Bartlett surmises. But if pandemonium breaks out in Dover after a hard Brexit, or the IT systems fail, then all 2,000 parking spots might well be needed.
Ideal vs. chaos
Dover residents hope that truck parks of the kind in Ashford can help prevent major congestion in their town. “It’s going to make a real difference,” says customs officer Stephen Potter. He calls Brexit “a terrible decision,” and he himself voted against it. The upside for him: he will likely have more work with the border authorities now.
Ultimately, no one knows exactly what shape an EU-UK deal will take, and how it will be implemented. “Maybe nothing will happen in January at all, at least not immediately. Maybe we’ll get a longer transition period,” says Sabine Piper, a Dover local. She is spending early evening on the beach with her sister Pamela Danne following a day’s work at a travel agency. The two women share a German mother and English father. Although part of their family lives in Germany, they only have British passports. Danne even voted for Brexit. “I still stand by that decision,” she says. “We want to get our economy back on the rails.” Piper simply shakes her head. She opted not to vote at all in 2016. But like all the townsfolk, she too will have to live with the consequences.
Julia Smirnova was born in Russia in 1983. The London-based freelance journalist pens analyses, portraits and reports for German media such as Der Spiegel, Die Welt and ZEIT Online.