FOLKESTONE, England – As the prospect of Brexit inches closer, the tunnel that connects the United Kingdom to the continent continues to operate smoothly. But what does the future hold for this symbol of globalization and softened borders?
It’s 10:17 on a Tuesday morning and John Keefe, Eurotunnel communications director, points at a sign reporting that traffic between the UK and France is flowing with six ferry departures per hour.
EFE is in the Folkestone terminal, in Kent County, on the British side of this monumental feat of engineering which marks its 25th anniversary in a year marred by the challenges thrown up by Brexit.
Trucks and private cars have already passed the controls – a quick and easy procedure – and are preparing to enter the shuttles that will take them to the French terminal of Coquelles, in the district of Calais.
“There is a lot of traffic all the time,” Keefe, a British expat living in France, says.
It takes 35 minutes to cross the channel, a 50-kilometer journey, 39 of which are under the sea.
Some 3,000 and 3,500 trucks and between 12,000 and 14,000 private vehicles whiz through the tunnel daily.
Keefe compares crossing the Canal like traveling on a motorway.
Traveling from London’s Saint Pancras station, in the heart of London, to Coquelle takes around 75 minutes.
The reliable transport service and the free movement of goods are key to the trading relationship between the UK and EU, which is valued at an annual 140 billion euro.
“For a truck rolling down the motorway (...) they drive at 70 miles an hour on an English motorway and they go through the channel tunnel at 90 miles an hour so it’s actually quicker to use our train.
With Brexit looming, the goal is to keep the border as fluid and open as possible.
“If you imagine stopping all of the traffic on the main motorway in any country and asking questions and exchanging papers you would cause a traffic jam, so here the principle is to keep everything moving.”
The busy Folkestone terminal is designed to keep the flow of thousands of vehicles moving.
The aim is to check passports and wave vehicles in within 20 to 30 seconds before sending them through security and customs control checks.
The license plates on cars traveling through the Eurotunnel give a clear picture of the UK’s top trading partners: Germany, Holland, France and Belgium.
Britain imports cars from Germany every year at a value of some 20 billion euro; 5 billion euro worth of Dutch pharmaceuticals and French beverages that stack up to over 2 billion.
“We are part of the global logistics chain, we are not simply a link between the UK and France,” Keefe continues.
Once Brexit happens, the channel tunnel will become a border between the UK and the EU and the essence of the infrastructure will have to change.
“After Brexit customs information will need to be swapped between authorities,” Keefe says.
“So we have this new facility, these eight lanes with the barriers, to be able to conduct two things: one is the security checks we always do before a truck goes into the tunnel which we do anyway (...) but at the same time now we will be asking the driver for customs documents.”
Now, as well as inspecting vehicles for safety, officers will be checking customs documents.
Any goods aboard commercial vehicles will have to undergo controls when arriving in the EU.
One way authorities are hoping to avoid delays is by doing checks during the journey.
“Using electronic data capture means we don’t have to stop the trucks for any amount of time and then the control of the contents can be done during the journey while the truck is still moving.”
When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, Getlink (the Eurotunnel’s managing company) started developing contingency plans for various possible outcomes, including the worst case scenario that would see the UK leave without a deal.
So far nearly 16 million euro have been spent on new buildings to accommodate the customs offices and on staff training.
“That is the startup cost of Brexit,” Keefe mused.
“Our goal was to make our system run as it does today, with no impact.
“All of that is possible using technology.”
Getlink will use data capture technology to collect information like license plates. The data is shared with French authorities who then assess whether further checks are required.
There have always been passport controls for people moving between the two countries, since, unlike the UK, France is in the Schengen area.
Although Keefe does not have French nationality he told Efe he would be applying for a French passport post-Brexit.
It’s been a long day and the clock has struck 19.30.
The sign still reports fluid traffic and trains are departing every ten minutes.
Keefe collects his belongings, closes the door to his office and drives to the ferry that will take him home through the tunnel, a channel that despite Brexit will continue to bridge the UK with Europe.