DOVER, England – Every day, around 5,000 cargo-laden trucks snake past the white chalk cliffs at this busy port and onto waiting ships that ferry them 37 kilometers (21 miles) across the English Channel to Calais in France.
Their easy progress is the result of the seamless commercial connection the United Kingdom has had with the continent as part of the European Union.
But with plans for a smooth exit from the bloc now stuck in Britain’s Parliament and the outcome unclear, authorities are stepping up contingency planning for what could become one of the world’s biggest traffic jams.
Without a Brexit deal in place, free trade across the Channel will end on March 30, and customs and other checks will kick in for the first time in 45 years – a change that officials warn would cause huge, cascading delays.
To prepare, the local government in southern England is planning to use an abandoned airfield to serve as a holding area for thousands of trucks. Miles of highway are to be turned into another vast parking lot.
More than 3,000 British soldiers are on standby to help out, as are 200 extra traffic wardens.
“There could be massive disruption,” says Duncan Buchanan, the head of policy for England and Wales at the Road Haulage Association.
Logistics firms are looking for alternatives to Dover, which handles 17 percent of Britain’s goods trade by volume, and would be especially prone to disruption if customs checks snap back into place.
There are plans to dredge another port on England’s South coast to help handle overflow traffic. Ports in the north of the country could also take on more volume.
Britain and France now have special arrangements, expected to continue after Brexit, that allow French immigration and customs officials to perform some checks in Dover and British officials to do the same in Calais, including passport checks and measures to stop illegal immigrants.
The main change after a no-deal Brexit would be that traders would have to submit customs declarations and pay any duty due – a big administrative burden. There would also be extra checks going into the EU on product, food and livestock standards, which would in theory happen in Dover.
In Calais, officials say Britain has assured them they won’t introduce any new checks or collect tariffs on goods coming in from Europe. A spokesman for the UK customs authority said there will be checks but that systems will be in place to minimize delays.
The UK’s National Audit Office says that up to 250,000 British businesses will have to fill in a customs declaration – each with 84 separate data fields – for the first time.
“The government does not have enough time to put in place all of the infrastructure, systems and people required for fully effective border operations on day one,” says the watchdog in an October report.
Across the Channel, French officials are nervously looking on and preparing for massive disruption. A hitch at either Calais or Dover is enough to cause gridlock on both sides of the Channel. Ships shuttle between the two ports, picking up and depositing trucks.
“If you can’t get off the ship, you can’t get on the ship,” says Buchanan of the road-haulers’ association.
At Calais officials are well aware of this risk.
“If a grain of sand slips into this process, it will be chaos,” says Jean-Marc Puissesseau, who manages the port of Calais.
In Calais’s port, work is about to begin on parking lots that could hold around 1,200 trucks waiting to go through checks. Further parking areas are being built along the coast.
The French government has fine-tuned emergency plans to deliver food to stranded drivers lining up to get to the port and to place chemical toilets along the highway.
“I feel that the British are just discovering the scale of the problem,” says Michel Tournaire, a senior civil servant in Calais’s local government, sitting in an office with a picture of Napoleon on the wall.
Some businesses are planning to bypass Dover and Calais altogether. Jean-Pierre Devigne who runs a Calais-based logistics company, RDV Transport, says his fleet of trucks crosses the channel to Dover 20,000 times a year. The 63-year-old now plans to send trailers to another English port instead, where they will be picked up by British drivers.
UK aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC and luxury car maker Aston Martin are both planning to fly in parts in case of pandemonium at the ports. Drug companies, which already use airfreight to ship some of the most perishable medicines, could resort to more plane shipments in extreme Brexit conditions.
Both the British and French governments hope that disruption can be eased by getting traders to fill in customs declaration forms online before they arrive at the port. Again a logistical headache looms as few have ever filled in such forms before.
Some spy opportunity in the potential disruption. Devigne, who runs the logistics business, says he remembers the days of customs checks at Calais well. He was a customs official back in the 1970s before the UK joined Europe’s common market. Sitting at his desk, he points to a plan for big new premises he is setting up for his company. At the center of it he might build a customs processing office.
“I could return to my first love,” he says.