Richard North, 03/07/2019  

Readers may recall the excitable BS delivered in early January by the usual suspects following an interview by BBC Radio 4's Today programme of Jean-Marc Puissesseau.

This was in the run-up to our (then) expected departure from the EU on 29 March and the thrust of what M. Puissesseau had to say was that his port was preparing for a no-deal Brexit and "we will be ready". In this account, he asserted that "No more trucks will be stopped crossing the Channel than at present".

Picked up by the "ultras", relying on the prestige of M. Puissesseau and his many titles, the likes of Bernard Jenkin and Guido Fawkes used the interview to talk up their arguments that there would be no disruption to Channel traffic. Jenkin went so far as to claim that the interview: "completely spikes the fear campaign about WTO Brexit causing queues at Dover".

In so doing, they were building on the mistaken impression by local politicians that Calais could benefit from derogations to the EU law requiring border inspection posts to be "located in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry".

This was further compounded by the – equally flawed – belief that there could be a central control centre that would bring together the customs office and the Veterinary and Phytosanitary Service (SIVEP) at a site known as the Turquerie, situated in between the two ports.  The Guido Fawkes website endorsed this, citing Puissesseau's claims that Calais Port had "already been building infrastructure and parking, but that will not influence the traffic in Dover".

In another interview for the Today programme, we saw unsupported claims made by Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis, the latter saying that the veterinary checks would be "12 miles behind Calais", so there would be no blockages at the port.

Allowing him to build castles on air, the Guardian then published a polemic by Peter Lilley which claimed that there would be "an inspection post for animals away from the port".

With eleven weeks to go for the March deadline, supposed "evidence" was supplied by the Telegraph's James Rothwell. He claimed of the Turquerie site, that "diggers are laying the groundwork for a warehouse complex for inspectors and a lorry park". As his source, Rothwell cited Jean-Paul Mulot, a spokesman for the president of the Hauts-de-France region, who said he was "confident the new complex would be ready within 11 weeks".

However, a very different picture emerged when the Guardian finally sent a reporter with a lorry driver over to Calais, bringing back a photograph said to be of the planned border inspection post. In an apparently derelict site, the ground works had yet to be started.

The "killer line", though, came from none other than Jean-Marc Puissesseau who gaily told the French edition of Euractiv that there was an inspection facility under construction in Calais, "on the grounds of the port".

A similar drama was being played out with Eurotunnel. Jacques Gounon, president and CEO of operators Getlink, was complaining that Paris was "in the dark" and had made no serious preparations for Brexit. The state did not know exactly what they would need and, as long as customs and veterinary services had not clarified their requirements in terms of space and infrastructure, "Eurotunnel could not file a building permit".

Gounon was not alone in his frustration. Pierre-Henri Dumont, an MP for the Calais region, spoke bitterly of "procrastination" by central government. He claimed that the minister responsible, Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, did not know how many veterinarians would be needed. And the number of customs officers assigned to controls was "vastly inadequate compared to that of our European neighbours".

Initially, Dumont had claimed, there had been two options prepared, a single inspection point serving both the tunnel and the port, and two sites with two separate entrances. Yet, in six months of meetings and round tables, Paris had not been able to give a simple answer as to which option to progress.

Yet, despite all that, there is a clarity to the situation which the "ultras" have completely ignored - as with the report from Shanker Singham which constructs a totally artificial reality which has no basis in fact. The law on inspection post siting is clear.

But facts have no attraction to the "ultras". Debate to them is a matter of establishing an arsenal of factoids which underpin a belief system. Thus, despite Singham's demonstrable errors, the likes of Professor David Blake actively and uncritically endorse his work.

As regards hold-ups on the Dover-Calais route, however, the last few days have seen a significant development, where we learn that commercial traffic is to be held back in Dover unless it has received customs pre-clearance. Only then will vehicles be allowed to load.

Especially significant, though, is the Calais Port website and the accompanying map, which locates the control, customs and "veterinary/phytosanitary" inspection areas.

Here, contrary to the rhetoric and false claims, all the facilities are within the port boundary, with the SPS inspection points close to the perimeter. These are away from the main terminal entrance, requiring traffic to take a convoluted route. Bearing in mind that SPS checks take place before customs inspections, a certain amount of back-tracking is inevitable. It is hard to see how congestion will be avoided.

Separately, Eurotunnel has handed over its new Douane-SIVEP control centre to the French authorities. The centre provides nine unloading docks, a refrigerated storage area, 100 parking spaces for trucks waiting for sanitary and phytosanitary controls and 1,000-square-metre offices for the various border services.

Thus does reality strike home. The great claim of the "ultras", that a single, off-site facility could be provided to serve both Eurotunnel and Calais Port – thereby avoiding congestion in the port areas – has been proved completely false, by the facts on the ground.

Yet, with Hammond warning that the Treasury could take a £90 billion "hit" from a no-deal Brexit, over the next 15 years, the "Oaf" is asserting that such "negative claims" about a no-deal Brexit are "wildly over-done".

It is unlikely, though, that Johnson's assertions have any more validity than the claims made about the Dover-Calais route. The "ultras" have a history of inventing their own facts, and this is just another example.

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