France has dismissed this week’s dire British warnings about post-Brexit transport delays across the Channel as tactical posturing and warned that the EU would not yield to “intimidation” to reach an agreement on the future relationship between the two sides.
“Of course the signals that have been sent in the past few days are damaging,” said France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune, portraying as a likely deal-breaker the draft UK law undermining key parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed by Boris Johnson in January.
“Anything which disrupts, disturbs or increases tensions in the negotiations is regrettable and we won’t fall for a kind of intimidation at the European level,” Mr Beaune, a confidant of President Emmanuel Macron and co-architect of his Europe policy, told the Financial Times.
Asked about statements from Michael Gove, the UK cabinet minister responsible for Brexit implementation, about access permits for international lorries to enter the county of Kent and the likelihood of queues of up to 7,000 vehicles waiting to cross the Channel, Mr Beaune said he saw them as a way of putting pressure on the Europeans.
“It won’t work,” he said. “So let’s not waste time with these unfortunate tactical games and let’s negotiate fairly.”
French officials and executives who do business with the UK are aghast at the British government’s attempt to rewrite an international treaty signed less than a year ago after fraught negotiations. They are also baffled by the UK’s apparent lack of technical preparation for new customs arrangements that will apply from January 1, whether or not there is an outline agreement on the future relationship.
Mr Beaune said France and the EU were keen to reach a deal, but he reiterated that it would not be possible to grant the UK broad access to the EU market unless it agreed to respect the bloc’s health and environmental rules and restrictions on state aid for companies so as to ensure a “level playing field”. He also insisted on access for EU fishing boats to UK waters.
“If we too have to prepare for ‘no deal’, we are aware of that and we are accelerating these preparations in France,” he said, noting that the economic impact of introducing standard World Trade Organization tariffs to replace the current tariff-free trade would be “much more severe” for the UK than for the EU.
“We are preparing for all scenarios,” Mr Beaune said. “The best outcome is still to have an agreement. It’s desirable from a commercial, political and strategic perspective.”
France has deployed veterinary inspectors and 700 extra customs officers to its Channel ports — including the entrance to the Channel Tunnel near Calais — and spent €40m on a new IT system and handling facilities. In the UK, industry has estimated the country will need 50,000 new customs agents, while Mr Gove said up to half of the trucks arriving at Dover and the Tunnel will not have the right paperwork.
A key sticking point for France and the EU is the UK bill designed to override the painfully negotiated section of the Brexit withdrawal agreement designed to maintain peace on the island of Ireland by introducing customs checks on freight between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
“If — and I hope it’s not a serious possibility — if the commitments already made were not respected by the UK, it would obviously be extremely difficult for us to make other agreements and to organise our future relationship while having this doubt in our minds,” Mr Beaune said.
“So I hope it’s just a bad moment. I hope the British parliament and the British government return to strict respect for the commitments made, which is effectively a condition for confidence and the putting in place of the future relationship.”