The boss of the port of Calais has said 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.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau made an impassioned plea to Theresa May and Michel Barnier to put plans in place immediately to avert congestion in Calais and Dover, where bosses have already warned of permanent 20-mile tailbacks.
At the same time a leading politician for the Calais region said the problems in France would be 10 times worse than at the Irish border post.
At a private meeting at the European parliament, Xavier Bertrand, a former French health minister and the president of the Hauts-de-France political region, said politicians needed to grasp the magnitude of the problem.
“I know Ireland is going to be a real problem, but please remember the economic issues in Ireland are 10 times smaller than what is going to happen here,” he said. “This is a black scenario, but it is going to get darker and darker,” he said, urging politicians in Brussels and London to take urgent action by setting up working groups and listening to business.
Bertrand angrily denounced those who had power to influence the Brexit outcome. It was not right that economic operators should be expected to “sit on their hands waiting very anxiously for something to happen”.
At the same meeting, Puissesseau said both sides would be affected by the problems at the ports, with suppliers from the UK trying to get their goods through strict EU controls treated no better than those from a developing country.
“The UK is part of the 21st century. But this takes us back 100 years. This is sad,” he said. “From Brexit day, 100% of our traffic will be from outside the EU. I tell you honestly that GB will be a third country, this frightens me. There’s such a long history between the UK and EU.”
His message to May and Barnier was to “be intelligent” on the economy. “At the moment, 70% of food imported comes from the EU. Even if that goes down to 50% after Brexit because of controls, it still needs to flow smoothly; people still need to eat,” he said. “If there are delays it could end up rotting on the side of the road.”
Calais has embarked on a three-year €700m (£625m) expansion plan at the port with new docks to accommodate longer and wider ferries.