Brexit Sends Ripples of Uncertainty Down France's Coast

Long lines of trucks carrying stockpiles for British companies jam the highways leading to France's northern port of Calais, while in the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, French fishermen pull in their lines and fear that battles over fishing rights will soon erupt.

Up and down France's northern coast, the uncertainty of Brexit is causing ripples of chaos and frustration.

With just three weeks left to go before Britain is completely out of the European Union, no one knows if there will be a post-Brexit trade deal or a chaotic economic rupture between the two sides. Britain left the EU on January 31 but remains in its massive market until the end of the year. That means, barring a trade agreement, New Year’s Day could herald quite a hangover for businesses on both sides of the English Channel.

For Mathieu Pinto, a 28-year-old French fisherman, a no-deal Brexit will disastrously impact his right to fish in British waters, where he says he makes ''between 70% and 80%'' of his yearly income.

Pinto is based in France's coastal town of Boulogne, home to Europe’s largest fish-processing center. He had just returned from a night fishing sea-snails or whelk when he spoke to The Associated Press. He worries that his days of making a living in the family business could be numbered.

''(A no-deal Brexit) will already impact us hugely. And then we are going to have to share our French waters with foreigners as well,'' he said.

That would mean fighting for fish in French maritime territory alongside northern EU neighbors from the Netherlands and Belgium, which he says could create an impossibly tense situation. There is simply is not enough catch to go around without access to UK waters, he said.

''There will be war. Let’s not hide it. There will be war,'' Pinto said.

Ireland and Denmark are also among those directly affected by the potential closing off of UK waters.

Under current EU rules, EU countries can currently fish in British maritime territory, as they have for decades. But the overexploitation of these rules — and the seas — have meant that fish numbers have declined sharply. And so, too, did British fisherman. Saving British waters for UK fishermen became a rallying cry, fueling the Brexit vote for the UK to leave the bloc. Since then, fishing rules have remained a major issue at the heart of the Brexit impasse.

Meanwhile, in Calais, trails of truck exhaust fumes on the roadside illustrate the path to Brexit is, literally, jammed with uncertainty.

And that has caused British companies to stockpile goods, leading to a huge increase in the number of trucks heading to Calais' port and the undersea tunnel to Britain in the past few weeks. French police are delaying hundreds of trucks at the roadside to cope with the soaring traffic flow. It's a perfect storm on the highways, coming just as a coronavirus-related tourism slump has reduced the number of vehicle-carrying ferries crossing the English Channel.

Sebastien Rivera, a top regional official for the National Road Transport Federation, an industry group that represents some 350 companies that send their goods to the UK, blasted the situation as ''catastrophic.''

''For about the last three weeks, we've seen an increase in the flow of traffic toward Great Britain due to stockpiling. The platforms, whether it's the port or the (Euro)tunnel, don't have the capacity to absorb this increase in traffic,'' he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week there's a ''strong possibility'' that negotiations on a new economic relationship with the EU to take effect January 1 will fail. He and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have set a Sunday deadline to decide whether to keep talking or prepare for a no-deal break.

A failure to secure a trade deal would mean tariffs and other barriers going up that would hurt both sides, although most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit because the U.K. does almost half of its trade with the 27-nation bloc.

Rivera said the sheer uncertainty of what trade rules are going to be has caused enormous stress and additional costs to the transport industry, not to mention the hours of wasted time that truck drivers have spent stuck in traffic jams.

''It's not right that we're three weeks away and we don’t have answers,'' he said.

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