The late shift on Friday evening at the bitter end of January is not enviable for French border personnel stationed at Dover’s East Docks.
The officer who shivered in his cabin was not in the mood to return a smile, but returned my passport after a quick check. Friction-free – as required by the withdrawal agreement, at least until the end of 2020.
By next January, he and his exiled colleagues will have the right to inquire about my health, my financial resources – and the purpose of my visit.
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My intention was to take advantage of an unrepeatable opportunity: to sail on the first ferry to arrive in France after the Brexit.
The departure of the DFDS from Dover at 9.15 pm from Dover was to arrive in Calais immediately after midnight on 1 February, allowing me to rejoin the European Union a few minutes after the United Kingdom had left the EU.
Dover and Calais have provided the main link between England and France for centuries. One hypothesis behind the Channel Tunnel business plan was that car ferries would sail into the sunset once Le Shuttle started running from Folkestone.
Yet a quarter of a century away, there is enough traffic to support two rival ferry lines – P&O and DFDS – competing against the tunnel.
A passenger wore a “Bollocks to Brexit” badge, which read “It’s not a done deal”.
Most of my travel companions were unaware of the meaning of navigation and with a little maneuvering I was able to acquire pole position on deck 5 for the fastest escape. But the transport and tourism industries are well aware of the possible impact of Brexit.
At the moment, formalities for cars, trucks and buses are minimal. But Europe with borders will soon become a reality. It remains to be seen how much friction the reintroduction of customs control will create and the possible consequences for perishable products and irritable travelers.
Brexiteers argue that other ports in the UK, such as Felixstowe, are already used to handling imports from non-EU countries and that being outside the single market will not hinder trade.
Britain’s incoming tourism industry, meanwhile, is alarmed by how much damage will be caused by the impending ban on EU visitors to use national identity cards instead of passports. Ferry companies may also be affected. But for now the operation works like a clock.
As a force-five wind swept across the Channel, the on-board TVs broadcast scenes from Parliament Square in London – intertwined with vox-pop about the benefits of Brexit which ranged from ambitious to bizarre.
At the time Europe made its geo-political adjustment, it was midnight in France. On the open deck, smokers screamed with joy for what they felt was their hard-won and rediscovered freedom.
Within 20 minutes we were all back in the European Union, which, despite its reduced conditions, remains the most formidable alliance in the world.
The ramp from the ferry led to a network of possibilities without borders extending from the Mediterranean and the Balkans to the Baltic and Arctic. With Britain left behind.