A steady trickle of trucks rolled off ferries and trains on both sides of the English Channel on Friday, a quiet New Year’s Day after a seismic overnight shift in relations between the European Union and Britain.
The busy goods route between southeast England and northwest France is on the front line of changes now that the U.K. has fully left the economic embrace of the 27-nation bloc, the final stage of Brexit.
“For the majority of trucks, they won’t even notice the difference,” said John Keefe, spokesman for Eurotunnel, which carries vehicles under the Channel. “There was always the risk that if this happened at a busy time then we could run into some difficulties, but it’s happening overnight on a bank holiday and a long weekend.”
Britain left the European bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time on New Year’s Eve, in the biggest single economic change the country has experienced since World War II. A new U.K.-EU trade deal will bring restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its web of rules.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “an amazing moment for this country.”
“We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Year’s video message.
The historic moment passed quietly, with U.K. lockdown measures against the coronavirus curtailing mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn. Brexit, which had dominated public debate in Britain for years, was even pushed off some newspaper front pages by news of the huge vaccination effort against COVID-19, which is surging across the country.
In the subdued streets of London — which voted strongly to remain in the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum — there was little enthusiasm for Brexit.
“I think it is a disaster, among many disasters this year,” said Matt Steel, a doctor. “It is a crappy deal. I don’t really see any positives in it, to be honest.”
But in seaside Folkestone, at the English end of the Channel Tunnel, retired bank manager David Binks said he was relieved that the tortuous Brexit saga was — just possibly — over.
“It’s been going on for so long now that the time is now, I think, that we move on and go from there,” he said.
The break comes 11 months after a political Brexit that left the two sides in a “transition period” in which EU rights and rules continued to apply to Britain.
The trade agreement sealed on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations ensures that the two sides can continue to buy and sell goods without tariffs or quotas. But companies face sheaves of new costs and paperwork, including customs declarations and border checks.
The English Channel port of Dover and the Eurotunnel braced for delays as the new measures were introduced.
The vital supply route was snarled after France closed its border to U.K. truckers for 48 hours during Christmas week in response to a fast-spreading variant of the virus identified in England. Some 15,000 truckers needed emergency virus tests just to get into France, a process that left many stuck in their trucks for days.
But the pandemic and a holiday weekend meant cross-Channel traffic was light on Friday. Britain has also delayed imposing full customs checks for several months so that companies can adjust.
In the French port of Calais, officials said the new computer systems were working well and truckers had the right paperwork.
“Brexit … is not a synonym for congestion, as we say in English, nor a synonym for traffic disruption, but everyone must do their work,” said Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the Ports of Calais and Boulogne-Sur-Mer.
Jean Marc Thillier, director of customs for the region, warned that the border faced a “trial by fire” when traffic picks up after the holiday weekend.
Brexit also brought new checks across the Irish Sea. A dozen trucks rolled off the first ferry to arrive at Dublin Port from Wales before dawn, clearing the new customs inspections without delays.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said trade would change “fundamentally.”
“We’re now going to see the 80 billion euros ($97 billion) worth of trade across the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland disrupted by an awful lot more checks and declarations, and bureaucracy and paperwork, and cost and delay.”
Hundreds of millions of people in Britain and the bloc also face changes to their daily lives, with new rules for work visas, travel insurance and pet paperwork.
And years of discussion and argument lie ahead, over everything from fair competition to fish quotas, as Britain and the EU settle into their new relationship as friends, neighbours and rivals.
Brexit could also have major constitutional repercussions for the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland, remains closely tied to the bloc’s economy under the divorce terms. So while goods will continue to flow freely across the Irish land border, there are new checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. Over time, that could pull Northern Ireland away from the rest of the U.K. and toward Ireland.
In Scotland, which voted strongly in 2016 to remain in the EU, Brexit has bolstered support for separation from the U.K. The country’s pro-independence First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”
Video journalists Jo Kearney and Jason Parkinson in Folkestone, England and Alex Turnbull in Calais, France contributed.