By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - Many European businesses have yet to anticipate the new red tape that will be compulsory to trade with Britain after Jan. 1, the head of French customs warned, as the risk of queues of European lorries being turned down at the French port of Calais looms.
Whether London and Brussels reach a trade deal or not in the current phase of talks, in just over two months' time Britain will leave the transitional arrangement that allows it to trade freely with the European Union since it officially left the bloc in February.
That means some five million trucks crossing the Channel every year will suddenly have to submit paperwork to customs officials before being allowed to go through the tunnel or take ferries between Britain and the continent. Dover-Calais is the shortest sea route.
"We consider that we, at French customs, are ready," Isabelle Braun-Lemaire told Reuters in an interview.
"Our infrastructure is ready but it relies on companies having taken on board the fact that with Brexit, there will be custom checks on all goods. And that's a reality we think some companies have not taken into account yet."
Some 100,000 French companies trade with Britain today, and Braun-Lemaire said she had no way to know exactly how many of them already knew what they had to do to be allowed to trade.
"Since trade is free today, we don't know them. That's tomorrow's unknown," she said.
British companies will also have to confront a wall of bureaucracy that threatens chaos at the border if they want to sell into the world's biggest trading bloc.
"WE DON'T KNOW EVERYTHING"
Although the new customs arrangement does not depend on current negotiations on the future relationship - it is now known Britain will leave the EU's customs union - French customs officials said the political tension meant communication with their British counterpart was kept to a minimum.
"We can't have technical discussions that are as frank as we could have had," she said, adding that she had little visibility about British customs' preparedness. "We're not naive. We don't know everything."
But ironically, the coronavirus epidemic, which has greatly reduced traffic across the Channel, may help smooth the transition, said Jean-Michel Thillier, the French customs Brexit organiser in the region around Calais.
"The health crisis might help, in a way, by reducing traffic," he said. "So we might have a bit of respite at the beginning of the year."
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Nick Macfie)