French ports cut out of EU trade route after Brexit

French ports were excluded from European Commission plans for a new shipping route linking Ireland with the Continent post Brexit — potentially preventing them from accessing billions of euros in EU grants.

The Commission on Wednesday adopted a proposal to revise the routing of one of its strategic transport corridors to connect Dublin and Cork with the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Antwerp and the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, to channel trade directly from Ireland to mainland Europe after Brexit.

The decision to realign the EUs North Sea-Mediterranean corridor is both symbolic and practical: While the U.K. can no longer be part of EU routes when it leaves the bloc, circumventing the U.K. prevents Irish exports to the Continent from getting snarled up in British customs.

“This is to guarantee the connectivity of Ireland with mainland Europe, in particular by ensuring clarity and continuity as regards future priorities for infrastructure development and investments,” said Commission spokesperson Enrico Brivio.

But the plan, part of a series of EU measures to mitigate the effect of the U.K.s departure which Brussels calls “Brexit preparedness,” ignores major sites in France that are geographically closer to Ireland, including Roscoff and Cherbourg. That means those ports and the transport infrastructure serving them would not be eligible for extra funds from Brussels to upgrade their facilities.

“We advocate the inclusion of Flemish ports in the new alignment of the corridor as part of the new maritime links” — Flemish Department of Mobility and Public Works

Between 2021 and 2027, a proposed €30.6 billion could be available from the EUs major infrastructure fund — the Connecting Europe Facility — for such upgrades across the EU.

The Commission has not laid out the reasoning behind its decision to exclude French ports, but the routing follows concerns about serious congestion in Northern France if customs checks are introduced to cross the English Channel and congestion caused by industrial action by French port workers.

The Commission received multiple requests from French ports and regional business groups to be included in the proposal. A consultation on the planned route closed July 12, and six of the seven responses said the corridor should run through France.

The new route for the EUs North Sea-Mediterranean corridor aims to redirect billions of euros worth of trade from the overland route through Britain directly to Belgium and the Netherlands. Sites along the so-called TEN-T corridors can apply for EU funds to develop their capacity.

Aerial view of the ferry port of Calais | Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images

The corridor at present goes from Edinburgh through Ireland, taking in the British ports of Liverpool, Southampton, Felixstowe and Dover, before crossing to Calais and Dunkerque and later taking in Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Rotterdam.

The Union des Ports de France backed the “corridors alignment to French ports located in the Channel-North Sea,” arguing that the route should “reflect the geography and the current flows” of traffic. At present, much of Irelands fresh food and agricultural produce travels via truck across the U.K. and then makes the short hop over the English Channel between Dover and Calais.

A handwritten diagram dated July 11 and published online by the Commission suggested seven French seaports were originally considered, only for them to be later excluded.

In advocating its favored ports of Brest and Roscoff in northwest France, ALTRO, a transport company which is campaigning for a new rail route in the region, said the Commission should take the opportunity to “distract some trafics [sic] from the Northern Europe bottlenecks.”

A short submission from the Flemish Department of Mobility and Public Works said: “We advocate the inclusion of Flemish ports in the new alignment of the corridor as part of the new maritime links.”

As well as angering French ports, the plan also goes against the wishes of French rail operator SNCF.

The proposal must still be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council, and is dependent on the outcome of Brexit negotiations, since it would only take effect once the U.K. is excluded from EU regulations covering funding for transport projects. That would be after the proposed 21-month transition period that was agreed in principle in March, but on March 30 next year if the Brexit talks end in no deal.

As well as angering French ports, the plan also goes against the wishes of French rail operator SNCF, which requested that the high-speed rail networks connecting Paris and Brussels to London remain included in the transport corridor.

In its submission, SNCF argued that the U.K. should be kept within the EUs North Sea-Mediterranean corridor even after Brexit. “SNCF invites the involved parties to avoid hurdles to investments enhancing the existing rail infrastructure connecting the EU and the UK and to consider keeping the Paris-Lille-London/Brussels high speed rail network included in the NSM corridor after Brexit,” it argued, because the “high speed network is both technically homogeneous and strategic from a market viewpoint.”

As it stands, the main shipping routes from Ireland run to Cherbourg in France and Santander in Spain. Capacity has already increased in anticipation of disruption on the land route.

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