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Importers Struggle To Cross English Channel Amid Brexit, Pandemic Restrictions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many EU countries have temporarily closed their borders with Britain to stop the spread of a new and potentially more contagious strain of the coronavirus. The situation was already chaotic in the northern French port of Calais. That's because there are also just 10 days until Britain completes its exit from the EU single market and customs union. Twenty percent of all imports into Britain go through Calais. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was just there and sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thousands of trucks idle along the highway and in the port of Calais, lining up for ferries to cross the English Channel. British importers are trying to get as much through ahead of January 1, when there will be new customs forms and taxes to deal with. British driver Leo Warren says he's never seen anything like it.

LEO WARREN: Been driving a truck for 30 years, and it's more crazy now than it has ever been. When I go into the dock now, I won't be on a boat for another five hours, I expect. In the past, sometimes I've gone in, and half an hour from here - straight on a boat.

BEARDSLEY: For decades, trade has been close to seamless, with a Britain that was part of the EU's customs union and single market. Thousands of trucks a day rolled on and off ferries and trains on both sides of the English Channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

BEARDSLEY: Sebastien Rivera works with the largest French truck transport association.

SEBASTIAN RIVERA: (Through interpreter) We have more trucks because of Brexit and fewer ferries and trains because of COVID.

BEARDSLEY: And they're facing another problem the French and British governments thought they'd solved in Calais - migrants.

RIVERA: (Through interpreter) They are trying to get into the trucks that are backed up, and this is causing damages for trucking companies and insecurity for our drivers.

BEARDSLEY: Groups of young men lurk near the trucks and are chased by police, a picture of the desperation driving Africans to the heart of Europe. Croatian driver Sasha Marcovitch sees the migrants as a threat.

SASHA MARCOVITCH: If I see him, I kill him - very simple. If police don't kill him and military don't kill him, I kill him.

BEARDSLEY: French officials cleared a migrant camp in Calais four years ago. Now they've returned to the port, hoping it will be easier to stow away with the trucks backed up. The director of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, sees it as a temporary problem. He's more focused now on smoothing the Brexit transition.

JEAN-MARC PUISSESSEAU: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Puissesseau says French and British customs officials have put in place an intelligent border with e-declarations to be filled out beforehand. He says drivers will simply enter a customs code, and there'll be no more checks than now.

PUISSESSEAU: I can tell you that the custom people - they will not stop more the trucks as today. It's not possible. You think that the custom have time to stop trucks when you have about 4,000 trucks a day? They don't have to.

BEARDSLEY: Veteran driver Leo Warren doesn't buy it. He expects the waiting and the expenses to definitely go up in January. Brexit, he thinks, is crazy.

WARREN: We were trading with Europe to and fro - no problems. Personally, I can't see the benefit with being on our own - not at all, not at all.

BEARDSLEY: And with that, Warren puts his truck in gear and inches along the port. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Calais, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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