Both the UK and the EU fear they will be unable to reach a deal before the Brexit transition period ends.
Sprawling queues of lorries have started forming in northern France ahead of the United Kingdom’s imminent exit from the European Union’s single market, with huge tailbacks lingering around the key port city of Calais, local officials have said.
Traffic was heavy in both directions on the Dover-Calais route on Thursday as traders rushed to move goods ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU’s orbit on December 31.
By midday in northern France, there was a queue of lorries waiting to access the Channel Tunnel which stretched for more than 5km (three miles), according to an AFP news agency reporter at the scene.
Francois Schira, the senior local official in charge of Brexit preparations, told the news agency the congestion came after an “all-time record” number of lorries lined up to cross the English Channel on Wednesday.
He said 9,000 heavy goods vehicles had arrived in the area, dwarfing the normal figure of 5,000-6,000.
“The traffic is only increasing. Many heavy goods vehicles could not board yesterday, parked nearby and rushed this morning to try to board this morning,” Schira said.
“This immediately created a traffic jam and we could not regulate the influx. This morning the situation is very complex to manage.”
The disruption follows weeks of warnings over possible future chaos at UK-EU border points after the so-called transition period – during which the UK has remained in the EU’s single market and customs union despite having formally left the bloc in January – draws to its close at the end of this year.
Hopes that a messy divorce can be avoided were briefly raised on Wednesday when the EU’s top official said there was now a clear, if narrow, path to reaching an agreement with the UK on a post-Brexit trade deal.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was seeing clear progress in the talks held in Brussels, adding that “the good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues.”
Von der Leyen also confirmed that the major sticking points between both sides had been whittled down to just two issues – fair competition in the EU market and fishing rights for EU vessels in UK waters.
“This is now a case of being so close and yet being so far,” she told the EU parliament, which will have to approve any deal brokered.
But on Thursday, UK government minister Michael Gove warned the chances of the UK and EU agreeing a post-Brexit trade deal was “less than 50 percent”.
He told legislators in the UK Parliament – which will also have to ratify any deal that emerges from the ongoing negotiations – that “regrettably the chances are more likely we won’t secure an agreement”.
Any failure to strike a deal would likely result in an economic hit for both sides and political acrimony.
It would see the pair default to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules from January 1 – bringing financial tariffs, quotas and other regulatory barriers into play and potentially affecting hundreds of billions of pounds worth of annual trade between the UK and the EU.