French Port Watches Britain’s Debate on EU Membership
"The last English city of France" are the words Francois Lavallee uses to describe the French port of Calais.
Lavallee is president of the Chamber of Commerce for the Hauts-de-France area of northern France, of which Calais is a part. He adds that the city has "a lot of human and business exchange" with Britain. "It's in our blood."
The port sits across the English Channel from Britain. British flags and public houses, called pubs, welcome ferryboats and their passengers to Calais. People also arrive in the city on the Channel Tunnel, which links southern England with northern France.
But today, Calais is preparing for Britain's possible withdrawal from the European Union, a move known as Brexit. Such a move would affect the city's long-standing economic ties with the country.
Britain is supposed to leave the EU at the end of October -- with or without a new agreement in place between the two sides.
In Calais and other northern industrial ports, the French government has added hundreds of new customs officers. France also is testing a new electronic customs system.
Calais has invested a lot of money in new infrastructure to help limit delays for the thousands of trucks that pass through each day with goods. Cross-channel trade for the Hauts-de-France region amounted to more than $7 billion last year.
"Britain is the third biggest market for the north of France," after Belgium and Germany, noted Lavallee. "If there are problems with the British market, there may be bad consequences."
A recent Chamber of Commerce report attempted to identify possible winners and losers in a no-deal Brexit. Local tourism businesses, fisheries and port traffic may suffer, it said. Some British-based companies might choose to move across the Channel, however. This could provide a much-needed economic boost for the region, which is one of France's poorest.
The family-owned Carpentier trucking company is one of many Calais businesses making Brexit preparations. Transporting goods to and from Britain makes up 20 percent of its business.
Carpentier is carrying out its own tests to see if customs agents are truly prepared.
"Whether it's a hard or soft Brexit, we'll still keep transporting to Britain," said the company's transport director Arnaud Dequidt. "We can't do without Britain, so we'll adapt."
Taxi driver Hughes Vanpeene dreams of a positive side to Brexit. Britons once came in large numbers to Calais, thanks to a duty-free zone that ended in the 1990s. Even with the city's welcoming flags and pubs, their numbers have since shrunk.
"...We think that with Brexit, duty-free will come back, and we'll again have people in Calais buying alcohol and cigarettes," Vanpeene said.
Lavallee see things differently.
"For us, it's very difficult to understand Brexit," he said. "For us, it's a big mistake. We hope England will change her position on Brexit."
"But," he adds, "If Brexit arrives, we will try capturing profits for the region."
I'm Ashley Thompson.