PARIS — From the ferries crisscrossing the slender spit of Channel, to the British flags and pubs dotting the scruffy town center, it’s easy to see where Calais’ priorities lie.
“Calais is the last English city of France,” jokes Francois Lavallee, Chamber of Commerce president for France’s northern coastal region. “We have a lot of human and business exchange. It’s in our blood.”
But today, Calais is preparing for a Brexit-wrought rupture to longstanding economic and historic ties — even as chaotic London politics make Britain’s planned Oct. 31 exit from the European Union increasingly uncertain.
Here and in other northern industrial ports, the French government has hired hundreds more customs officers, and is now testing a state-of-the art electronic customs system under both "hard" and "soft" Brexit scenarios. Calais also has invested millions in new infrastructure to assure fluid traffic for the thousands of trucks passing through daily.
“Those who believe there will be thousands of kilometers of traffic jams are mistaken,” the French minister charged with customs, Gerard Darmanin, told reporters recently.
Even with a no-deal Brexit, officials predict most merchandise will be able to transit without full customs checks for the first few months. Online forms, to be filled out ahead of time, aim to avert bottlenecks for other goods, like livestock and produce, which local officials estimate amounts to just 9% of total traffic.
Brexit’s larger local backlash remains a big unknown. Cross-channel trade for the broader Hauts-de-France region, which includes Calais, amounted to more than $7 billion last year.
“Britain is the third biggest market for the north of France,” after Belgium and Germany, said Lavallee. “If there are problems with the British market, there may be bad consequences.”
A recent Chamber report found potential winners and losers in a no-deal Brexit. Local tourism, fisheries and port traffic may suffer. Some British-based companies might opt to relocate across the Channel, however, providing a much-needed boost for the region, one of France’s poorest.
On the outskirts of town, the family-owned Carpentier trucking company is one of many making Brexit preparations. Transporting goods to and from Britain, mostly food and computer equipment, accounts for 20% of its business.
Already, says transport director Arnaud Dequidt, customers are piling up stock on either side of the Channel. Carpentier is conducting 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,” Dequidt said. “We can’t do without Britain, so we’ll adapt.”
The city’s relations with its cross-Channel neighbor have not always been positive. In the 14th century, it withstood a nearly yearlong English siege. The six town burghers who volunteered themselves as hostages in exchange for lifting it were captured in a famous Rodin sculpture, which today sits in front of city hall.
More recently, Calais captured headlines because of the tens of thousands of migrants squatting on its outskirts hoping to jump a truck or train to Britain where life, they thought, would be better than in France. The infamous "jungle" migrant camp was razed in 2016, and many migrants resettled.
Today, some are attempting Channel crossings by dinghies, with a reported spike in their numbers due to Brexit fears.
Still, taxi driver Hughes Vanpeene, waiting for customers outside the city’s train station, dreams of a positive side to Brexit. Britons once flocked to Calais, thanks to a duty-free zone that ended in the 1990s. Despite the welcoming flags and pubs, their numbers have since shrunk.
“Here in Calais, we don’t have English who take the ferry anymore. Most take the Eurostar” train to Paris, Vanpeene said. “But we think that with Brexit, duty-free will come back, and we’ll again have people in Calais buying alcohol and cigarettes.”
Lavallee is less optimistic.
“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.”