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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

No-deal Dover rejects Theresa May’s Brexit dreams of EU compromise

In the port which will be one of the frontlines of Brexit, resentment simmers against draft agreement

There will be a sharp increase in the number of vehicles needing customs at Dover port. Getty
There will be a sharp increase in the number of vehicles needing customs at Dover port. Getty

On a blustery day on the Dover seafront, Martin Mitchell, a worker in one of the southern English city’s many bed and breakfast guesthouses, is walking his dog.

The settlement and its port has a special place in the journey towards the British exit from the EU. Cap Gris-Nez in northern France lies just 21 miles away across the slate-grey channel.

While the French headland looms over the horizon, Mr Mitchell simmers with resentment that Theresa May, the British prime minister, has announced her government is ready strike a Brexit compromise with the EU.

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“She [Mrs May] has tried to please everyone, even the ones who lost the vote,” he said. “People like me, who let me remind you were in the majority, were the last ones she has cared about. It should have been the other way round really”.

Dover is the frontline for UK imports and exports to and from the continent and beyond with some 2.6 million lorries carrying 17 per cent of Britain’s imports across its ramps. The figure has risen in recent years, and pre-Brexit was expected to increase by another 40 per cent by 2030.

Yet despite Dover’s reliance on this frictionless trade, this is a deeply Eurosceptic part of Britain, and the frustration over Mrs May’s negotiations is palpable.

Brian Hindley, 51, used to work at the port. Tall and balding, with a deep baritone voice, he too voted Brexit. He says anything but a full Brexit “would be like surrendering to Brussels”.

“We were fed up with them telling us what we could bring in, and what shape our bananas had to be,” he said. “Do you remember that? Anything that lets them keep doing that is a betrayal, a betrayal of what we demanded.”

School teacher Jessica Hapsal, 23, is one of the minority who didn’t vote to leave the EU, but even she isn’t convinced that the town she grew up in could be turned into the world’s biggest lorry park.

“I don’t follow it closely, but even I know Europe doesn’t want that. It wouldn’t be good for any of us, so I don’t think they will let it happen”.

In 2016, the constituency voted to leave by some 62 per cent, and despite claims that delays in customs checks of just two minutes could see lorries backed up some 17 miles and parked on motorways and in car parks across the south east, people here largely remain determined to see the London-Brussels divorce play out.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London after holding a cabinet meeting where ministers were expected to either back the draft Brexit deal or resign. AFP Photo
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London after holding a cabinet meeting where ministers were expected to either back the draft Brexit deal or resign. AFP Photo

Many are as determined as ever to see Britain ditch out of the union regardless of the potential consequences. “Nobody from Dover is talking about these lorry parks, it’s all London fantasy, they don’t understand how it works here. Life will go on, trust me,” said Mr Mitchell. “We’ve been through far worse.”

Lyndsey Summerton, 66, moved to Dover more than 10 years ago and is now retired – she also voted Leave.

A ‘no-deal departure’ is now her preferred option, having been angered by the tactics of the European negotiators.

“Nothing has changed, if anything we want out even more now when you see how Europe has acted,” she tells The National. “The port was there before the EU, it will be there after too, trust me”.

Tim Dixon, the general manager of Motis FSA, a company that provides customs clearances for lorries leaving the port for destinations outside the EU, is more nervous than his sanguine neighbours.

“We hold 300 vehicles on site and process around 600 per day through import and export,” he said, explaining this is a drop in the bucket compared to the daily freight volumes that have reached as high as 10,600.

There is no doubt a sharp increase in the number of vehicles needing customs checks would cause serious issues for a port that does not have the stop and process capacity.

Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Union. Dover residents say they have not been enamoured by the EU's negotiating tactics. Bloomberg
Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Union. Dover residents say they have not been enamoured by the EU's negotiating tactics. Bloomberg

Two years on from the vote to leave the EU, uncertainty has led most companies to postpone preparations for a new more intrusive regime. “Training-wise, extra staff-wise, no one is willing to stick or twist, not until they know what is going to happen,” said Mr Dixon.

Politicians from across the political spectrum, including from Mrs May’s own Conservative party, and her Northern Irish partners the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have lined up to denounced the deal agreed on Wednesday.

Some said it didn’t go far enough to implement Brexit, while others vowed to vote against it in the hope of an opportunity to reverse the vote.

The widespread dissatisfaction with the deal means a no-deal Brexit cannot be discounted.

The Kent coast locals are adamant the area can fall back on its history to thrive if Britain strikes out on its own. A small plaque on the Dover seafront commemorates those from the city who were lost during World War 2.

It describes Dover as ‘Frontline Britain’. Indeed, the famous white cliffs which cradle the old town and port were a major barrier to a Nazi advance on mainland Britain during World War Two. On D-Day, areas across Dover played major roles in Operation Fortitude – an effort to fool Germany into believing the allies would launch their own attack from this natural launch pad onto the continent.

For now, its future remains unwritten. After a mammoth five-hour meeting on Wednesday night, Mrs May has succeeded in getting her cabinet on side; now she faces a seemingly impossible showdown in the British parliament. Regardless of what happens there for many in Dover, Brexit, in whatever for, is just another chapter in Dover’s status as the British frontier with Europe.