LONDON — A steady trickle of trucks rolled off ferries and trains on both sides of the English Channel on Friday, a quiet New Year’s Day after an overnight shift in relations between the European Union and Britain.
The busy goods route between southeast England and northwest France is on the front line of changes now that the U.K. has fully left the economic embrace of the 27-nation bloc, the final stage of Brexit.
“For the majority of trucks, they won’t even notice the difference,” said John Keefe, spokesman for Eurotunnel, which carries vehicles under the Channel. “There was always the risk that if this happened at a busy time then we could run into some difficulties, but it’s happening overnight on a bank holiday and a long weekend.”
Britain left the European bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time on New Year’s Eve, in the biggest single economic change the country has experienced since World War II. A new U.K.-EU trade deal will bring restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its web of rules.
The historic moment passed quietly, with U.K. lockdown measures against the coronavirus curtailing mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn. Brexit, which had dominated public debate in Britain for years, was even pushed off some newspaper front pages by news of the huge vaccination effort against covid-19, which is surging across the country.
In the subdued streets of London — which voted strongly to remain in the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum — there was little enthusiasm for Brexit.
“I think it is a disaster, among many disasters this year,” said Matt Steel, a doctor. “It is a crappy deal. I don’t really see any positives in it, to be honest.”
But in seaside Folkestone, at the English end of the Channel Tunnel, retired bank manager David Binks said he was relieved that the Brexit saga was over.
“It’s been going on for so long now that the time is now, I think, that we move on and go from there,” he said.
The break was made 11 months after a political Brexit that left the two sides in a “transition period” in which EU rights and rules continued to apply to Britain.
The trade agreement sealed on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations ensures that the two sides can continue to buy and sell goods without tariffs or quotas. But companies face new costs and paperwork, including customs declarations and border checks.
The changes are bound to bring “bumpy moments,” a top Cabinet minister predicted this week. The government expects new customs paperwork alone to cost British businesses about $9.6 billion a year. The European Union is Britain’s largest trading partner, with $916 billion of imports and exports, and Britain imports far more goods from the bloc than it exports.
Britain has at least 150,000 exporters who have never sent their goods beyond the bloc, according to data from the country’s tax agency, and will therefore need to make customs declarations for the first time. Border checks within the European Union were scrapped in 1993.
This is a change that will be immediately felt at Britain’s ports, especially the busy Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel terminus at Folkestone, which connect the country to France. But Friday, with most business halted for New Year’s Day, trains and ferries were reported to be running smoothly. The Eurotunnel reported that 200 trucks had used its shuttle train by 8 a.m., with all the correct documents.
“It does seem pretty calm,” Elizabeth De Jong, the policy director of Logistics U.K., a trade group, told Sky News on Friday morning.
But she added that businesses now faced “a new, different language of customs arrangements” that would need to be understood. She described the next few weeks as a live trial, as companies must ensure they have the correct paperwork for themselves and the goods onboard, and traffic has to be managed into the area.
The vital supply route was snarled after France closed its border to U.K. truckers for 48 hours during Christmas week in response to a fast-spreading variant of the virus identified in England. Some 15,000 truckers needed emergency virus tests just to get into France, a process that left many stuck in their trucks for days.
But the pandemic and a holiday weekend meant cross-Channel traffic was light Friday. Britain has also delayed imposing full customs checks for several months so that companies can adjust.
In the French port of Calais, officials said the new computer systems were working well and truckers had the right paperwork.
“Brexit … is not a synonym for congestion, as we say in English, nor a synonym for traffic disruption, but everyone must do their work,” said Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the Ports of Calais and Boulogne-Sur-Mer.
Jean Marc Thillier, director of customs for the region, warned that the border faced a “trial by fire” when traffic picks up after the holiday weekend.
Brexit also resulted in new checks across the Irish Sea. A dozen trucks rolled off the first ferry to arrive at Dublin Port from Wales before dawn, clearing the new customs inspections without delays.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said trade would change “fundamentally.”
“We’re now going to see the [$97 billion] worth of trade across the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland disrupted by an awful lot more checks and declarations, and bureaucracy and paperwork, and cost and delay.”
Hundreds of millions of people in Britain and the bloc also face changes to their daily lives, with new rules for work visas, travel insurance and pet paperwork.
And years of discussion and argument lie ahead, over everything from fair competition to fish quotas, as Britain and the EU settle into their new relationship as friends, neighbors and rivals.
Brexit also could have major constitutional repercussions for the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland, remains closely tied to the bloc’s economy under the divorce terms. So while goods will continue to flow freely across the Irish land border, there are new checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. Over time, that could pull Northern Ireland away from the rest of the U.K. and toward Ireland.
In Scotland, which voted strongly in 2016 to remain in the EU, Brexit has bolstered support for separation from the U.K. The country’s pro-independence First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”
Information for this article was contributed by Jill Lawless, Jo Kearney, Jason Parkinson and Alex Turnbull of The Associated Press; and by Eshe Nelson of The New York Times.