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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

Long queues at Channel ports have caused misery for thousands of holidaymakers - and an exchange of blame between the British and French governments. John Lichfield looks at who is really to blame and how the crisis can be solved.

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit
French border police at the UK border. Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

Let’s get one thing straight about the dire straits in Dover.

The long queues to pass through French passport control are not the fault of France – much less a deliberate plot by President Emmanuel Macron (as some UK newspapers suggest).

Strictly-speaking, they are not the “fault” of Brexit either. They are the fault of successive British governments who have failed to prepare for Brexit and failed to educate the British public on what Brexit means.

Leaving the EU, according to the Brexiteer gospel, has no downsides. When that lie is found out, the response is always more lies.

Yes, delays in the Channel Tunnel did prevent a full staffing of French passport-control booths for a couple of hours on Friday. Yes, that did help to build the queues of Calais-bound cars to epic proportions.

But that was only briefly responsible for the tail-backs at Dover port and not at all responsible for the similar mayhem at the Channel Tunnel terminal near Folkestone.

A former senior British official with experience of Franco-British border issues tells me: “This (problem) was nothing to do with under-staffing by the Police aux Frontières. That only seems to have lasted less than two hours.”

READ ALSO Are the French really to blame for Dover traffic chaos?

The fundamental cause was the extra time it takes to clear and stamp a British passport now the UK is no longer in the European Union – 30 seconds instead of three seconds. The infrastructure at Dover and Folkestone has not been changed because the UK government refused to do so.

The jams were made worse by the fact that the Kent motorways were already choked by stacked France-bound trucks. These are permanent jams caused by the government’s failure to accept the consequences of its decision to impose the most radical form of Brexit by abandoning the EU single market.

 The French police had 200 officers on duty in Calais and Folkestone last weekend – almost double the normal number.

They could not send more. There are not enough French passport booths and traffic lanes at either Dover or Folkestone  to cope at peak periods with the extended post-Brexit passport checks.

Will UK-France travel continue to be a nightmare all summer?

 The French government and the port authorities have been pointing this out for at least two years. 

In 2020, the UK government refused to spend £33 million (€39 million) on port improvements in the cramped Dover port, which would, inter alia, have doubled the space for French passport control.

Both the candidates to be the next British prime minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have lied. They say that the blockages are entirely the fault of France. The British tabloid press prefers to personalise its mendacity. They suggest that Emmanuel Macron personally took time away from the Ukraine, energy and cost of living crises to plot to ruin British holidays.

Why did French police insist on checking every passport? Why not wave British cars through, as they once did?

There is some evidence that the French did waive the rules at the weekend to help clear the backlog. But that cannot be a permanent solution. Post-Brexit, France has a duty under EU law to stamp British passports to ensure that those without residence permits are not overstaying their 90-day allowance.

The huge blockages of last weekend are, therefore, likely to be repeated next weekend and every weekend this summer.

There is another aspect of the Dover and Folkestone crisis which the British media largely ignores. The French passport controls are on the English side of the Channel because that suits the British government.

They are part of a swap deal agreed in the Le Touquet treaty in 2003. By having British passport controls on the French side of the Channel, asylum seekers could be prevented from reaching British soil and claiming asylum.

READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet agreement and why do some French politicians want to scrap it?

There was no particular advantage to the French in having their passport checks in Kent but that was the reciprocal deal that President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at the time.

As a result, French police take the tunnel shuttle daily over to the English side. Signal problems delayed the arrival of some of the officers on Friday – providing the UK government with a convenient lie.

Some French politicians are already campaigning for the Le Touquet treaty to be scrapped. President Macron did so before he was president.

The latest outbreak of blame-the-French nonsense in Britain will no doubt strengthen the hand of the anti-Le Touquet camp. It would be much easier (although expensive) for France to build extra passport-checking capacity on the Calais side of the straits.

That would also mean that asylum seekers could reach England before their passports are checked. That would doubtless displease the Daily Mail.

In truth, France is unlikely to abandon the Le Touquet treaty. Even more migrants and asylum-seekers would be attracted to the Pas-de-Calais. They would still be blocked from crossing by steep UK penalties on Eurotunnel and the ferry companies for carrying unauthorised passengers.

There is another reason why the French border will probably remain in Kent. The EU is introducing a system of electronic visas for non-EU travellers.

READ ALSO Passport scans and €7 fees: What is changing for EU travel?

In theory that could ease the problems in Dover. It might make things even worse if many travellers turn up without buying their €7, three-year visa in advance.

At least if they are stopped in Dover, they can be go straight home. If they were stopped in Calais, they would have to be “sent back across the Channel”, which might cause even greater problems.

There is no short-term solution to the Dover crisis. A mid-term solution is possible – a doubling of the space for French passport checks, now restricted to 12 lanes.

But that would require the British government to tell the truth about Brexit and to admit that leaving the EU can be painful and costs money.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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