As no-deal Brexit risk rises, so do odds of monster traffic jams

Why We Wrote This

In the villages along Britain's critical supply route to France, a “no deal” Brexit is not just a political issue. It could have very real ramifications – not least turning southeast Britain into a tractor trailer parking lot.

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Trucks are backed up on the M20 motorway from London to the Channel Tunnel terminal at Ashford and the Ferry Terminal at Dover, in June 2015. The British government is preparing for possible repeat traffic jams should Britain leave the EU without a deal.

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As Britain draws closer to the deadline of March 29, 2019, without Parliament's approval of Theresa May's plan for leaving the European Union, a “no deal” Brexit looks increasingly possible. That would mean no transition period after March 2019 for businesses and regulators and ports to adjust to new rules of trade. A chorus of British politicians and business leaders insist such an outcome is an “own goal” that must be avoided. And while much of the attention has been upon what “no deal” would mean for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the effects on the crossing between England and France could be just as profound. The EU supplies 30 percent of all the food, drink, and animal feed consumed in Britain. Every day more than 10,000 trucks cross on ferries or through the tunnel between Dover and the French port of Calais, less than two hours away. Under a no-deal Brexit, however, every goods vehicle would have to clear customs in Dover or Calais. In addition to custom declarations, there would be regulatory checks at ports for animal and forestry products. Those could take hours, depending on the load. Port officials estimate that a two-minute delay for trucks entering Dover would lead to a 17-mile line of trucks on the main highway from London.

From the concrete overpass, Mike Taylor watches the traffic that trundles through the bucolic countryside, bypassing villages like his own. Nearly all the trucks on this four-lane highway, the M26, are headed to and from the southeastern ports that are Britain’s gateways to Europe and beyond.

The roar from below is unceasing. “It’s like this day and night,” says Mr. Taylor, a local councilor.

To the east, the highway curves towards a junction where it joins an arterial road to the coast. Just out of sight are the “gates” recently installed in the road’s central barrier so that thousands of trucks can be diverted and held back. In the event of a major backlog at the Port of Dover, 50 miles away, this stretch of highway would become a temporary truck park.

What kind of calamity might cause such a monstrous snarl-up?

In a word, Brexit.

Or, more precisely, a “no-deal” Brexit that ends overnight a quarter century of frictionless trade in goods with the European Union on which much of Britain’s economy depends. No deal means no amicable separation – and no transition period after March 2019 for businesses and regulators and ports to adjust to new rules of trade.

The Bank of England recently warned that the economic shock of a disorderly exit, if compounded by higher interest rates and labor shortages, could be greater than the 2008-09 financial crisis. Even a more orderly “hard Brexit” – ending all preferential trading and regulatory arrangements with the EU, and instead seeking a free-trade agreement a la Japan or Canada – would over 15 years mean an economy that’s 9 percent smaller than if it had stayed in, according to a separate government forecast.

And while a chorus of politicians and business leaders insist that a no-deal Brexit is an “own goal” that must be avoided, the risks of it happening are rising. Parliament is deadlocked over Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU and no alternative is forthcoming. Calls to postpone Brexit and hold a second referendum have so far gone unanswered.

“Absent of anything else securing a majority [in Parliament] that is the path we are on for March 29th,” says Nicola McEwen, a professor of politics at Edinburgh University. A no-deal Brexit “is looking increasingly likely. That’s not to say I think it will happen.”

The Dover-Calais lifeline

Ms. May, who fended off a leadership contest last week, has said that Parliament will get to vote on her unpopular agreement with the EU during the week of Jan. 14. A vote was originally due on Dec. 11. Opposition members of Parliament and some in her own Conservative party accuse her of running down the clock so that MPs face the unpalatable choice between her deal or an imminent no-deal.

“It’s still the default option at the moment, but I think as the date gets closer people are getting increasingly desperate to put something in its place,” says Meg Russell, a politics professor and director of the Constitutional Unit at University College, London. “Parliament doesn’t want a no-deal exit.”

The most controversial aspect of May’s deal concerns another border, that between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, an EU member. The EU insists on a backstop customs union to prevent an intra-Ireland border, an arrangement that many in May’s party oppose.

Toby Melville/Reuters
A large mural attributed to the British artist Banksy depicts the EU flag being chipped away at the Port of Dover in southeast Britain on Dec. 7.

But it’s the maritime border with France, and the risk of a chaotic end to frictionless trade, that alarms officials here in Kent, the rural county that is likely to feel the brunt of a trade shock.

The EU supplies 30 percent of all the food, drink, and animal feed consumed in Britain. Every day more than 10,000 trucks cross on ferries or through the tunnel between Dover and the French port of Calais, less than two hours away.

The EU customs union means that these trucks are rarely if ever checked. “The only thing that holds it up is waiting to get on the ferry,” says Taylor, who used to run his own freight company.

This seamless border trade allows Japanese automakers to run complex supply chains from Europe to their British assembly plants. Most keep only one or two days of spare parts in stock. British supermarkets stock a cornucopia of fresh food that relies on the unbroken Dover-Calais linkage.

Under a no-deal Brexit, however, every goods vehicle would have to clear customs in Dover or Calais. In addition to custom declarations, there would be regulatory checks at ports for animal and forestry products. That could take hours, depending on the load. Port officials estimate that a two-minute delay to trucks entering Dover would lead to a 17-mile line of trucks on the main highway from London.

Some pro-Brexit lawmakers argue that Britain should ditch May’s unpopular deal and prepare to begin trading with Europe and other partners under World Trade Organization rules. Champions of a hard Brexit say most EU-bound freight could be cleared in advance using tracking software, and that in a pinch, British ports could waive through trucks to avoid a crunch.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has poured cold water on these proposals. He told a Parliamentary committee recently that it could take two years or more just to plan, get permits, and break ground on the infrastructure required at Dover to process EU freight under WTO rules.

Preparing for logjams

In 2015, Kent got a taste of what Brexit could bring. That summer strikes by port workers in Calais and repeated attempts by migrants to smuggle into Britain led to weeks of port stoppages and crippling tailbacks. Authorities converted highways into parking lots: Trucks parked on the hard shoulder and inner lane, and were released when ports had capacity. At its peak, 7,000 trucks were held back for an average of 36 hours, a lifetime in a “just in time” delivery service.

Similar contingency plans have been prepared for the day after Brexit. A disused airport runway up the coast from Dover could hold at least 5,000 trucks, according to Kent County Council. Still, even that capacity may not relieve what could be the mother of all traffic jams.

So in October, with little advance notice, highway authorities closed the M26 that skirts Borough Green. It was to be the first in a series of overnight roadworks that, it emerged, would prepare the 10-mile stretch of highway to hold trucks.

Karen Norris/Staff

The news caught by surprise not just district officials like Taylor but also Tom Tugendhat, a member of Parliament who is a Conservative. The next day he stood up in Parliament to lambast his own government for keeping him in the dark.

“It comes to a pretty pass when an MP is told that work is going on to turn part of a motorway into a lorry park without any consultation with the local community or surrounding members,” he said.

Mr. Tugendhat says that he has got assurances from the transport ministry and other agencies the M26 was a last resort to be used only if others were full. He says residents in Borough Green and nearby villages are rightly worried about the consequences of holding trucks there.

Kent County Council has warned that the effect of highway closures and traffic diversions could trap local residents in their communities, prevent trash from being collected, understaff hospitals and schools, and raise air pollution to dangerous levels.

“I’ve made it clear to the government that they have a lot more work still to do if they want to properly mitigate the impact of this. There is no package in place yet to help, and more work must be done as quickly as possible,” says Tugendhat, a military veteran elected to Parliament in 2015.

Local trucks from a sandpit already share the narrow roads through Borough Green, a parish of 4,500 residents that abuts farms and fields. Taylor is also busy campaigning against a plan to build 3,000 new homes on some of that greenery.

His front door is 10 feet from a local road on which he expects to see Dover-bound trucks seeking alternative routes. In 2015, “every single side road got jammed with traffic,” he says.

In 2016, Tugendhat’s constituency voted 56 percent to 44 percent to leave the EU, a larger margin than the national average. Dover, which includes the port and other towns, went even harder for Brexit: 62 percent of voters opted to leave.

Taylor voted to remain, though he says he had mixed feelings about EU rules on immigration and EU court jurisdiction. But he believes that being in the customs union is a huge economic plus for Britain – and that a no-deal Brexit would be a huge minus.

Asked what should happen, he sighs. “I think we need to have another referendum,” he says.

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