Moments after the UK left the EU with an 11th-hour deal, the first trucks hauling goods across the new customs border presented their clearance documents to French agents before loading on to a train to pass through the Eurotunnel.
Ivanov Shumeykov was the first driver processed by officials late on New Year’s Eve. He smiled and waved as his HGV went through Eurotunnel controls in Folkestone, Kent just after 11pm. The first arrivals on the shuttle from France following the end of the Brexit transition period were expected at around 12.23am.
Scenes in Dover have been quiet as many hauliers have been staying away to avoid being the first to test new border controls.
Freight flows through the Eurotunnel’s Calais terminal were extremely light in the early hours of Friday morning. Yann Leriche, chief executive of Getlink which operates the Eurotunnel, told Reuters tweaks to customs procedures might be necessary but that there would be no chaos in the weeks ahead.
But Matt Smith, managing director of HSF Logistics, which ships mainly fresh meat and chilled goods between Britain and Europe, said the new post-Brexit customs systems and paperwork were largely untested.
“We’re not too sure to be honest, it seems to be a bit of a headache,” he told AFP. “There’ll be delays along the line at some stage.”
British and European businesses have warned of carnage as they learn to navigate a wall of red tape and paperwork that threatens to disrupt the smooth flow of nearly €1tn in annual trade.
The Brexit transition period’s end still leaves Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market for goods.
Northern Ireland will also apply the bloc’s customs rules at its ports, even though the region is still part of the UK customs territory, to prevent the return of a hard border with the Irish Republic.
To avoid disrupting cross-border trade and a return of checkpoints along the politically sensitive Irish border, the EU and UK agreed to move new regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea.
That means checks are focused on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Many hauliers based in Northern Ireland will keep volumes light for the first few days of 2021 as they wait to see what the impact will be, industry figures have said.
While the UK formally departed the EU at the end of January 2020, a transition period meant almost all tangible changes were deferred – until now.
From Friday morning, individuals and businesses both in the UK and beyond face a dizzying new array of red tape, a good deal of it still to be confirmed, covering everything from travel, residency, work and tourism, to the supply of goods and services.
Considerable government anxiety remains focused on the situation at the Channel ports in Kent, particularly after Covid-related delays earlier in December saw thousands of lorries backed up at a disused airfield – one of 10 sites prepared for possible Brexit-caused disruption.
Officials are hopeful of a smooth start to the new era but are braced for possible delays next week, with government estimates suggesting that more than half of smaller businesses have not yet prepared for the end of the free movement of goods and services.
Boris Johnson largely ignored Brexit in his New Year message to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic instead, heralding the end of a year “in which the government was forced to tell people how to live their lives, how long to wash their hands, how many households could meet together”.
But he did say that the UK had “freedom in our hands” and the ability to do things “differently and better” now the long Brexit process was over.
On Thursday night French President Emmanuel Macron said the UK remained a “friend and ally”.
As the clock struck midnight in the UK, Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who played a key role in the 2016 Brexit referendum, revelled in the milestone, writing: “25 years ago they all laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
In a video message, Farage said, “This is a moment to celebrate: 2021 as an independent United Kingdom. Cheers!” before leaning into the camera and saying conspiratorially: “Shame the pubs aren’t open.”