Brexit talks in ‘final push’ as Boris Johnson warned lorry chaos is new normal outside EU

Brussels asks France to go easy on UK and lift ‘blanket’ travel ban on freight

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 22 December 2020 21:29
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Christmas rush and Brexit uncertainty fuel miles-long lorry queues

The lorry chaos at Channel ports is a glimpse of life outside the European single market, Boris Johnson has been told, as EU negotiators geared up for a “final push” to avoid no deal.

Guy Verhofstadt, the outspoken Belgian elder statesman, said on Tuesday that British people would “start to understand what leaving the EU really means” as huge swathes of Kent were given over to a lorry park.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, meanwhile told a meeting of ambassadors in Brussels that progress had been made in trade talks, with some topics even “preliminarily closed or close to being agreed” – but that fishing remained a block to a deal.

The talks are taking place amid a backdrop of chaos at Dover, with hundreds of lorries queueing along the M20 motorway thanks to border closures forced by the reported emergence of a new coronavirus variant.

Footage showed hundreds of hauliers sounding their horns at once in frustration on Tuesday night as they waited for news of a deal to allow them to return to the continent in time for Christmas.

Mr Verhofstadt, who headed up the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinating group in the first phase of talks, said of the chaos: “We forgot what borders look like. Some thought they would remain open with or without the EU. They will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means...”

Boris Johnson and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, have been holding unpublicised talks over the telephone over the last few days in a bid to move negotiations on, and to resolve the situation at the border.

Downing Street refused to confirm that the conversations had been taking place, but one senior EU official told The Independent that multiple calls had happened and that they were “part and parcel” of negotiations.

The European Commission played a calming role in the border chaos on Tuesday afternoon as it issued a recommendation for member states like France to start letting freight through again, for fear of economic damage.

“Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” the Commission said in a statement, while Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said that “blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes” ahead of Christmas.

As of Tuesday evening, the restrictions were still in place, with negotiations thought to be ongoing regarding a testing regime to make sure drivers are Covid-clear before being allowed to return to the continent.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said progress has been made in trade talks

While there was no sign of a Brexit deal on Tuesday, officials sounded cautiously optimistic that one was in reach, if not in time to prevent a no deal. But the politically charged issue of fishing access is still the subject of intense haggling.

Following Mr Barnier’s update, one EU diplomat said: “Progress has been made. Most issues are preliminarily closed or close to being agreed. However, differences on fisheries remain difficult to bridge. Unfortunately, the UK is not moving enough yet to clinch a fair deal on fisheries.

“EU negotiators are in a last push now to make progress and to clinch a deal acceptable for both sides. The EU will not close its door to the UK and remains ready to negotiate even beyond 1 January.”

But disruption to trade flows is expected to happen again even if a deal is signed. Hammering the point home, Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright told the Commons Business Committee: “The scenes at Dover I think could be replicated at any point going forward.

"The intensity and impact of this on the supply chain is the concern. I think you will see this happen again, particularly if we get a no deal Brexit with the imposition of tariffs. It won’t necessarily be as bad as this, but this will become a commonplace.

“The lorries with the wrong paperwork or whatever get stuck in the queue and then things delayed.”

Britain will leave the single market and customs union on 31 December. The economic damage of doing so is expected to be magnified significantly without a deal.

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