France will be ready to handle border inspections in the event of a no-deal Brexit but fears long tailbacks at the Channel as goods flow between Britain and Europe, its agriculture minister said.
Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29, but Prime Minister Theresa May has yet to secure parliamentary approval for a divorce deal agreed with the EU last year.
May suffered another defeat in parliament over her Brexit strategy on Thursday, and France’s European affairs minister said Britain should “hurry up” and decide on its withdrawal terms.
France is the EU’s biggest agricultural producer and exports large amounts of wine, spirits and dairy products to Britain, while relying on its neighbour’s waters to sustain its fishing industry.
Following the launch of a 50-million-euro (£43.7 million) no-deal Brexit plan in January, the French government has established large inspection zones at ports and recruited extra personnel, including 80 food safety inspectors, Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume said.
“France is genuinely ready to carry out checks and guarantee food safety in this country,” Guillaume told Reuters.
“The main traffic jam we fear is at the exit of the Channel Tunnel,” he said, stressing that 80 percent of British food exports to the rest of the EU pass through France.
Businesses have been warning of long tailbacks for lorries transporting goods between Britain and mainland Europe, and the British government said last week most goods from the EU will be allowed into Britain without full customs checks for at least three months if there is no Brexit deal.
Guillaume said France would focus on checking documents rather than inspecting goods in order to get lorries quickly through freight “corridors” being set up at French ports.
“We’re not going to check everything because the British are not going to send us totally rotten produce, there is trust,” he said. “This is not war.”
He dismissed fears in the farming world of a repeat of disruption caused by a Russian embargo on Western food in 2014 – which prompted the EU to grant 1 billion euros in aid to the dairy, fruit and vegetable sectors.
But he repeated French calls for Britain not to close its territorial fishing waters if it leaves the EU without an agreement.
“That would be an unacceptable retaliatory measure,” he said.
Fishing rights were a flashpoint between Britain and France last year when fishermen clashed in the Baie de Seine area of the Channel over access to scallop-rich waters.