EU Calls on Member States to Reopen Transport Links to U.K.
Two trucks carry cargo along an empty highway leading to the Port of Calais. (Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg)

EU Calls on Member States to Reopen Transport Links to U.K.

The European Commission called on member states to reopen critical trade and passenger transport links to the U.K. while discouraging non-essential travel, a step toward ending the chaos at Britain’s busiest port.

The Brussels-based commission said in a statement that freight transport to and from the U.K. must be allowed to continue uninterrupted but that any unnecessary journeys should be avoided “until further notice.”

“Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” the EU’s executive arm said on Tuesday.

The British government is desperately trying to re-open trade routes to France after a day of cross-Channel political bartering failed to end the impasse. France shut down freight traffic from Dover in southeast England at midnight on Sunday because of fear over a faster-spreading mutant strain of Covid-19 that forced the U.K. government to impose a strict lockdown on London and surrounding areas.

Spain and Portugal, meanwhile, are among more than 40 countries restricting flights and effectively isolating the U.K.

European Union ambassadors are set to discuss the recommendation later on Tuesday, and the bloc’s governments have previously vowed to coordinate their response.

EU Calls on Member States to Reopen Transport Links to U.K.

Turmoil

Two days of border disruption have seen more than 1,500 trucks backed up along roads in southeast England and threatened shortages of some fresh food items in British supermarkets before Christmas.

It also gave the country a taster of the border upheaval that may be coming in less than two weeks time if the U.K. fails to strike a trade deal with the European Union before the Brexit transition period ends on Dec. 31. Without an agreement, Britain will default to trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, with the imposition of costly tariffs and quotas.

Non-essential travel between the U.K and the EU is set to be temporarily restricted anyway from Jan. 1 when Britain leaves the customs union. As a so-called third country, the U.K. will be subject to Covid-related restrictions.

The Commission said truck drivers arrived from the U.K could be asked to take coronavirus tests or go into quarantine -- as long as the requirements don’t disrupt supply chains.

EU Calls on Member States to Reopen Transport Links to U.K.

Covid Tests

But French and British officials have been at odds over the type of test to use, according to two people familiar with the matter. The French side is pushing for hauliers to take PCR tests, which give a result in between 24 and 48 hours, while the U.K. prefers lateral flow tests that are less accurate, but take only about 15 minutes -- so could ease the queues faster.

Richard Ballantyne, who heads the British Ports Association, said he is hopeful there could be an exemption for freight drivers that would be combined with testing for Covid-19 at the border.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday to try to resolve the issue, while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been in regular contact with his French counterpart over the past two days.

The U.K.’s Road Haulage Association welcomed the European Commission’s statement.

“We hope the French government will lift this unnecessary ban immediately as a result,” said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs for the trade group. “The backlog will take days to clear and the sooner this begins the better.”

‘Reckless’

Shares of European airlines highly exposed to the U.K. market largely held to earlier gains. EasyJet Plc rose 4.4% after deferring costly jet deliveries earlier Tuesday. British Airways owner IAG SA advanced 5.1%, while Irish discounter Ryanair Holdings Plc was little changed.

But the head of the Scottish Seafood Association, Jimmy Buchan, warned the European Commission’s move hadn’t come fast enough and accused France of being “reckless.” He said the delay would be manageable if trucks can get moving by the end of Tuesday, but that any longer would carry the risk of spoiled food.

“In the busiest market week before Christmas, people are stranded and little thought was given to the people it would leave stuck and unable to get home to their families before Christmas,” he said

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