Near U.K.’s Busiest Port, Brexit Hopes Are Layered in Asphalt

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MERSHAM, England — The fields around the quiet village of Mersham, just 20 miles from the white cliffs of Dover, are a vision of idyllic English countryside. Lush, green trees sway above rolling acres of golden wheat. The spire of a 13th-century church looms on the horizon.

But soon, something far less charming could mar this pastoral vista: a 27-acre parking lot with hundreds — even thousands — of idling trucks. If Britain’s exit from the European Union causes the chaos many fear, up to 2,000 vehicles headed for France could be held at a time here in an asphalt Brexit purgatory.

Four years after Britons voted narrowly to leave the bloc, the implications of that decision are dawning on some of those who live in an area where support for Brexit was strong. The parking area is widely being called the “Farage Garage” — a reference to Nigel Farage, the nationalist politician who was one of the loudest voices for Brexit.

“The noise and pollution would be huge, particularly if this is a 24-hour facility,” said Liz Wright, an elected council member in the local municipality, Ashford, looking out over the site officially known as MOJO on a recent sunny morning.

“This has happened so suddenly and without any consultation,” added Ms. Wright, a Green Party member who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 — as did six out of 10 people here — but said she did not expect this to be the result.

Back then, Leave campaigners dismissed their opponents’ predictions of more bureaucracy and disruption to trade across the English Channel as “project fear.” Now, in the southeastern region that calls itself the “garden of England,” that fear has taken on a very real, tarmac form.

Though it left the bloc on Jan. 31, Britain remains tied to Europe’s customs system through the end of the year, so freight still enters from the Continent with minimal interruption. In preparation for what comes next, the government is spending £705 million — more than $920 million — to upgrade customs and border infrastructure.

Brexit supporters have made confident pronouncements that the new system will barely slow the flow of goods. But if it goes wrong, it could do serious damage to Britain’s economy and to the bucolic life here.

The site near Mersham is designed to check freight traffic arriving on ferries from France. But local politicians have been told that, if post-Brexit rule changes bring chaos to the Channel ports, this could also become a temporary place to park trucks.

“People are very anxious about what might happen,” said Damian Green, the Conservative Party lawmaker for Ashford and a former senior cabinet minister.

“The worse case scenario will be miserable, possibly for a few months, but in the best scenario it won’t have to be used at all as an emergency lorry park,” he said.

Kent knows all about traffic mayhem around the Channel ports. In 2015, when French ferry workers went on strike, a line of 4,600 trucks stretched back 30 miles on one roadway.

On that occasion, the gridlock combined with a heat wave. Emergency teams handed out more than 18,000 bottles of water to stranded truckers, as perishable cargo went bad.

“Delays at the border could cause significant knock-on effects for ‘just-in-time’ supply chains, potentially precipitating widespread economic disruption while also turning parts of Kent into a lorry park,” said a recent report from the Institute for Government, a research organization, on what to expect in January.

Even before the government bought the MOJO site, it was widely expected to become a warehouse. So construction work did not come as a surprise to many people, but the nature of the project did.

Those who think gridlock can be avoided include John Lang, who voted for Brexit and has not changed his mind. He described his home and tranquil garden close to MOJO as a “little bit of paradise,” and was confident it would stay that way.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to make it work,” Mr. Lang said.

Local people who wanted to stay in the European Union feel vindicated, even if they are reluctant to crow about it.

“I just think it’s so sad that this is another bit of countryside that we have lost,” said Sheila Catt, an administrator in the health service. She worries about air pollution, as well.

The problem for Mersham lies partly in the geography of Dover, a short drive to the east, where one of the world’s busiest ports is crushed into a limited space bounded by the famous white cliffs behind it.

Today, as many as 10,000 trucks can pass through the port daily, rolling on and off ferries in a ceaseless flow of cargo, mostly to and from Calais in France.

With Britain operating under the European common market rules, trucks usually clear the port of Dover in around eight minutes. Only a tiny number of vehicles are stopped.

That arrangement is scheduled to end on December 31, when Britain is expected to chart its own course. The risk of disruption is high — adding just two minutes to the time needed to process each truck, the Port of Dover has estimated, could produce a 17-mile backup.

Talks on a post-Brexit trade agreement between Britain and the European Union are deadlocked. But even if they strike a deal that eliminates tariffs, more checks on products will be required than at present, and there is simply no space to perform them at Dover. So trucks will stop in places like Mersham instead.

The chief executive officer of the port, Doug Bannister, said that the Dover-Calais ferry route was so important economically across Europe that any gridlock would likely be resolved fast. If there is disruption, Dover has systems in place to clear bottlenecks relatively quickly, he said, and Britain plans to phase in its rule changes, giving time to adapt.

But he acknowledged “some unknowns out there,” including, critically, how French authorities will handle freight checks at Calais. Any gridlock on one side of the Channel would spread quickly to the other — if trucks cannot roll off ferries, the ferries cannot load other vehicles for the return trip.

Britain’s new system for electronic customs declarations is still being developed, and surveys suggest that smaller exporters are ill-prepared for the new bureaucracy, and are preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am very, very confident that there will be no disruption on January 1 primarily because it’s a bank holiday,” said Mr. Bannister, “but January 2 may be a different question.”

At the MOJO site, Paul Bartlett, a Conservative Party representative on Kent County Council, welcomed the construction of a customs facility, and the jobs it could bring, but opposed its use as a holding pen for delayed trucks. “One of the main frustrations is the lack of information,” he said.

But sitting in the garden of the Farriers Arms, a country pub in Mersham, Jo Gregory said that the implications of Brexit were only starting to sink in.

“I don’t think people had thought it through until recently,” said Ms. Gregory, a sales assistant who did not vote in the 2016 referendum and still doesn’t have a firm view of Brexit.

But she is not staying here to make up her mind.

So worried is she about the MOJO development that she is moving home from one village about four miles from the site to another, Westwell, farther away.

“It’s going to be busier, it’s going to be noisier,” she said, “and it’s bad enough with the traffic we have at the moment.”

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