Richard North, 10/01/2019  

I have absolutely no interest in the pathetic prancing of Westminster politicians, and the games they are playing on Brexit. Like it or not, Mrs May is right. There are only two choices on the table: her deal or no deal. And the way these blustering fools are going, they are driving straight down the road to a no-deal, with potentially devastating results.

Even more irresponsible, if that was possible, is that rag-tag contingent that exploits every opportunity it can find to support its ongoing campaign to present the no-deal scenario as an acceptable option – and even one to be welcomed.

Their opportunity came again yesterday when BBC Radio 4's Today programme aired a squib from Jean-Marc Puissesseau (pictured), styled as the Deputy Calais Mayor. Triumphantly repeated on Twitter, it had him saying that the Calais authorities were preparing for a no-deal Brexit and "we will be ready".

This version of Puissesseau said, "No more trucks will be stopped crossing the Channel than at present", adding that the UK Government's efforts to move trade away from Calais to other ports were "shocking" and "disrespectful".

This was immediately seized upon by Bernard Jenkin, who chortled: "This interview is big news. Well done for carrying this". The comment addressed to the BBC, he added: "But why is this not now in the hourly news bulletins? It completely spikes the fear campaign about WTO Brexit causing queues at Dover".

The likes of the Guido Fawkes website quickly followed, identifying the man as "President Chairman of the ports of Boulogne-Calais". The customs at his port would only be checking for veterinary and sanitary controls,  he said, "for which we have already been building infrastructure and parking, but that will not influence the traffic in Dover".

"We will not control the exports, only asking the papers already, the custom declaration, that’s all! The import, as you won't control [restrict], there will not be a queue in Dover because there will not be control, so where is the problem?!"

Said Guido on the basis of these claims, echoing Jenkin, "Maybe it's time that scaremongering Remainers started to listen to the experts".

Oddly enough, though, the likes of Jenkin were not so quick to retail the views of Puissesseau in March when he said that there could be tailbacks up to 30 miles in all directions and potential food shortages in Britain if a Brexit deal involves mandatory customs and sanitary checks at the French ferry terminal.

This was the very same Jean-Marc Puissesseau, making "an impassioned plea" to Theresa May and Michel Barnier to put plans in place immediately to avert congestion in Calais and Dover, where bosses had "already warned of permanent 20-mile tailbacks".

And that's what typifies this rag-tag contingent. When people say something of which they approve, which helps their cause, they talk them up and spread the word. But if they dare to say anything else, they are ignored.

When it comes to Puissesseau, though, we are dealing with something of a mixed bag. Born on 13 August, 1940, he is – to English eyes at least – one of those strange French mixes of businessman and politician, for which there is no real equivalent in the UK.

President of the Strait Ports Operating Company (SEPD) which was created in 2014, he was previously President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of Calais, followed by a term as President of the Côte d'Opale CCI, representing Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, before standing down in December 2015 to avoid "conflict of interest" in his current position.

Politician rather than "expert", he has business interests in the Calais football club, in a household appliance wholesaler, publishing and housing rentals. Through his links with the port, he has been a high-profile spokesman for its interests, a voluble critic of the French government for not dealing effectively with the migrant problem, and equally critical of the European Commission when it sought to exclude Calais from its "Motorway of the Sea" project once the UK had left the EU.

As such, he is something of a "hired gun", ready to defend the interests of the port whenever necessary. But in this last intervention, apparently contradicting his claims made in March, there is more to this than meets the eye – much more.

In what is and remains a murky picture, we have to go back to early October of last year, when Gérald Darmanin, Minister of Action and Public Accounts came up from Paris to meet 50 or so customs officers from Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais.

Brexit was discussed but only in private, but what came out of a subsequent meeting with the mayor and Natacha Bouchart, vice-president of the Region in charge of port issues, about forty guests, was more than interesting.

The Minister announced the creation of a customs office in Calais and then Natacha Bouchart proposed the creation of a central control centre that would bring together the customs office and the Veterinary and Phytosanitary Service at the borders (SIVEP) at a site known as the Turquerie.

This is a proposed logistics park, part of an ill-fated regeneration programme dreamed up in 2011 and more or less abandoned after an incomplete phase one, although the politicians, Natacha Bouchart amongst them, are reluctant to give up on their pet project, which they regard as a strategic necessity in the post-Brexit trading environment.

Situated along the Calais-Dunkirk railway line and between Calais Port and the Channel Tunnel, it is some distance from both terminals. But this was at a time when the French government wrongly believed that there could be derogations to the EU law requiring border inspection posts to be "located in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry".

When in early December, Ms Céline Gauer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission, told the National Assembly that there would be no derogations, that must have thrown the plans for Calais into complete disarray, completely scotching the idea of using the Turquerie site. Not only could there not be a combined facility to service both port and tunnel, separate installations would have to be built in both terminals.

Since then, while there has been some discussion in the French press about inspection facilities for the Normandy ports, there has been an almost complete absence of references to provisions at Calais. Despite intensive trawling, I can find no further references since October. It seems that the local politicians, having found they could not use Brexit to reactivate their pet scheme, had no alternative to fall back on.

Yesterday's Guardian, however, referred to the French authorities in Calais building temporary border inspection posts near the port "for the mandatory checks on food and live animals that will be required after Brexit in a no-deal scenario", but that is either old news or incorrect.

The article itself had Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, responding to Puissesseau's claims that the port had already been building infrastructure and parking. Lidington reminded us that "European law says all food exports and livestock exports from a third country to the EU have to be inspected 100 percent [and] checked at a designated border inspection post", stating that Calais did not have infrastructure in place to carry out all the necessary checks in the event of a no-deal exit.

Given the "radio silence", one can take it that this is more likely to be true. If there was any progress at all, it seems hardly likely that there would have been no mention at all of it in the French media. Thus, Puissesseau's protestations seem more like bluster to cover up the lack of any progress, representing an opportunity to protect the interests of his beloved port, trying to stave off the prospect of business going elsewhere.

As to the details of his claims, we have since seen a detailed rebuttal from the Road Haulage Association (RHA), affirming that there would be "significant delays" at the port.

This is the crunch. The very fact that the "no deal" contingent is so keen to play down the likelihood of delays tells you how important this issue really is. Yet nothing of this is being addressed by the prattling MPs in Westminster, nor indeed assisted by the self-interest of French politicians.

While Brexit has now become a crisis, and business bleeds, all we have is the unedifying sight of politicians playing their games - on both sides of the Channel. As the wealth of the nation drains into the sand, there must surely be a reckoning.

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