Why Brexit is to blame for holiday traffic chaos at Dover

Why Brexit is to blame for holiday traffic chaos at Dover

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

When it’s the start of the Easter holidays and you’re a transport hub and you’re trending on Twitter, you know things are not going well.

While all eyes (well, my four at least) were fixed on Heathrow Terminal 5, where a 10-day strike by security staff began on Friday, the traditional great getaway snarl-up this Easter turned out to be at the Port of Dover.

Thousands of coach passengers endured a miserable wait, many of them through the night. Factors as diverse as stormy weather and the French were blamed for preventing travellers from getting away on much-needed holidays.

“Blame,” though, is the wrong term here. We got what we signed up after a democratic vote to leave the European Union and asking to become “third-country nationals” in the eyes of the EU.

Yes, questions need to be asked about the “turn up and go” procedure that normally works pretty well at the main sea departure point from the UK. But the fundamentals that led to the disarray are clear – and are only going to get worse.

What we have seen over the past few days is the “coach variant” of the car snarl-up last July. That was the first contact, after Covid and Brexit, of large numbers of families wanting to escape to the Continent.

On the last day of March 2023, the first serious wave of school excursions, student trips to the Alps and the usual bunch of scheduled coach services converged on the corner of southeast Kent where we asked for a hard EU frontier to be installed.

Yes, a border of the kind that you see between the European Union and Russia and Turkey, only with juxtaposed border controls – which means that French border officers are following orders in inspecting the passport of every British traveller before stamping it.

Let me pause for a Brexiteer to heckle: “But we had to have our passports checked while we were in the EU. Nothing’s changed.”

Oh yes, it has.

Non-Schengen EU citizens, for example, Irish passport holders who travel from Dover to Calais, still get a light touch – all the frontier officials can do is check it is a valid travel document and belongs to the person carrying it.

We asked to become subject to the “90/180-day” rule, which means that our stays in the EU are strictly limited. For that to be policed, passports must be stamped – with, in theory, every page being examined for evidence of a recent stay in Europe.

For a coachload of 50 people that is going to take a very long time, and if dozens of coaches are heading for Dover, trouble awaits.

Lessons can be learned, and a pre-booking system is likely to manage peak times. But in the longer term, things can only get worse. We asked to become subject to the (much delayed) Entry-Exit System, which will mean all of those people on all of those coaches will need to be fingerprinted and have their facial biometrics taken as well. Good luck taking the prints of those school trips with crisps and chocolate attached to the digits.

Some are saying, “renegotiate”. Since we have got exactly what we signed up for, I’m not sure how well the conversation might go with the European Union. But the grim experience will deter some people from going through Kent in future, which will take pressure off the port but add it to other departure points.

Anybody who knows Dover knows that it is an extraordinarily constrained site: on largely reclaimed land beneath the White cliffs of Dover. It was never designed for the idea that we would suddenly want to have an EU external frontier there. But we did.

And here we are.