The late shift on a Friday evening at the bitter end of January is an unenviable one for the French frontier staff stationed at Eastern Docks in Dover.
The official who shivered in his booth was not in the mood to return a smile, but returned my passport after a cursory check. Frictionless – as the Withdrawal Agreement demands, at least until the end of 2020.
By next January he and his exiled colleagues will be entitled to enquire as to my health, my financial resources – and the purpose of my visit.
Dover and Calais have provided the main link between England with France for centuries. One assumption behind the Channel Tunnel business plan was that the car ferries would sail off into the sunset once Le Shuttle started running from Folkestone.
Yet a quarter-century on there is enough traffic to sustain two rival ferry lines – P&O as well as DFDS – in competition against the tunnel.
One passenger sported a “Bollocks to Brexit” badge, which claimed “It’s not a done deal”.
Most of my fellow travellers were unaware of the significance of the sailing, and with a little manoeuvring I was able to acquire pole position on Deck 5 for the quickest getaway. But the transport and tourism industries are well aware of the possible impact of Brexit.
At present, formalities for cars, trucks and coaches are minimal. But Europe avec frontières will soon become a reality. It remains to be seen how much friction the reintroduction of customs check will create, and the possible consequences for perishable products as well as irritable travellers.
Brexiteers argue that other ports in the UK, such as Felixstowe, are already accustomed to handling imports from non-EU countries, and that being outside the single market will not hinder trade.
Britain's inbound tourism industry, meanwhile, is alarmed at how much damage the impending prohibition on EU visitors using national ID cards instead of passports will do. The ferry firms could also suffer. But for now the operation works like clockwork.
As a force-five wind pummelled across the Channel, the onboard TVs broadcast scenes from Parliament Square in London – laced with vox-pops about the benefits of Brexit that ranged from ambitious to bizarre.
At the moment Europe made its geo-political adjustment, it was midnight in France. Out on the open deck, the smokers whooped with joy at what they felt was their hard-won and new-found freedom.
Within 20 minutes we were all back in the European Union – which, even in its diminished condition, remains the world’s most formidable alliance.
The ramp from the ferry led ahead to a network of frontier-free possibilities stretching from the Mediterranean and the Balkans to the Baltic and the Arctic. With Britain left behind.
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