Before Brexi, truck driver Patrick Kirwan is said to have typically transported his load of frozen meat from France to Northern Ireland on the fast ferry across the Channel, followed by a crossing to Great Britain and then a sea of Ireland under sail – but on a cold winter’s night in February he was preparing to make the 17-hour direct ferry trip to Ireland from the Norman port of Cherbourg.
“I would say it’s because of the paperwork,” he explained from the cab of his O’Donovan truck on the docks. Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, remains in the EU’s trade zone under the Brexit deal reached in December.
The UK’s departure from the EU on January 1 at the end of the Brexit transition period and the resulting customs and border health checks immediately diverted trade between Ireland and the rest of the country. EU of the British “land bridge”. The ferry leaving Cherbourg Thursday evening for the Irish port of Rosslare had a full load of more than 100 trailers and trucks, while the neighboring ship to Portsmouth in England was less than a fifth full.
Soaring demand roads connecting the island of Ireland towards the rest of the EU fueled a Brexit boom in French ports such as Cherbourg, Dunkirk and Roscoff, and at Rosslare in the south-east of Ireland.
“There has been a huge shift in traffic with Brexit – and the paperwork – and the realization that D-Day is finally here,” said Glenn Carr, general manager of the Port of Rosslare.
As the wind blows from the cold sea, Carr explains how the port, which “had not seen growth for many years”, benefited from a sudden surge in traffic and cargo volumes.
“We went from three services [each way] from last January to today, 16 crossings per week, or 32 connections from and to Rosslare to Europe ”, he declared.
“Ship visits increased 37% in the first month compared to January of last year. Continental freight traffic increased 447% in January of this year compared to January of last year.
French port officials and ferry groups tell a similar story after shipping companies such as Stena Line, Irish Ferries, Brittany Ferries and DFDS moved swiftly as Brexit approached to introduce new services and increase capacity .
“We were ready for this and were going to double our activity, but the fact is that we have not doubled it, we have tripled it”, declared Yannick Millet, director of the port of Cherbourg, developed since the 17th century as a strategic asset to counter British power. He hires additional dockworkers to handle the traffic.
The UK land bridge was previously popular with Irish traders as it provided the fastest and cheapest access to mainland markets, but many have now opted to take longer direct crossings due to concern about delays in UK ports and new onerous red tape.
“We expected all of these difficulties,” said Jean-Marc Roué, president of Brittany Ferries in Roscoff. “The worst was avoided with December 24 [UK-EU trade] okay, but even though life has changed. No tariff is charged, but this does not preclude the need for customs declarations. “
He recalled that before Brexit, truckers heading to the UK “would arrive three minutes before the boat left and if the ferry was not full you would get on board. Crossing the Channel was easier than crossing the Ile de Ré [a French holiday island linked to the mainland by a bridge] in August.”
Data from January suggests that more than half of the 150,000-170,000 annual trips that previously used the land bridge will now use the direct sea route between Ireland and France, although with temporary travel restrictions due to the pandemic of Covid-19 have also contributed to the change. . Carr said Rosslare could still take 80,000 units of freight per year from the land bridge, including vehicles carrying loads to and from Northern Ireland. “We see trucks that we have never seen before.”
Shipments to the UK, on the other hand, fell. Rosslare, long a secondary port behind Dublin, saw a 49 percent drop in January, in line with the overall 50 percent drop in Irish-British trade since the start of the year.
Traffic between France and the UK has also fallen since the start of the year, with many Cherbourg ferry services booked by the UK government as part of its £ 77million scheme to secure vital supplies after Brexit almost empty, according to port and ferry officials. companies.
For truckers who made a living for decades traveling Britain, this is a dramatic change. “Since January we now go straight all the time unless we have work in England,” said Dave Reynolds, driver of an Irish group that ships goods “as far north as the Arctic Circle”.
At a truck stop an hour from Rosslare where the Irish government has set up a coronavirus testing station for drivers who need a negative test to enter France, Reynolds said there had been a huge drop in the use of the UK land bridge. “If we have to go to the UK, we go to the UK. Otherwise, we bypass it completely.
Driver Terry Walsh, speaking in Cherbourg on his way to Newry in Northern Ireland with a load of used tractors from Spain, agreed. “I think people prefer to go straight, although the cheapest route is through the UK.”