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Crossing French-UK border is now like going to US, say French customs

Brexit has resulted in far more complications and costs, report customs agents in France

Exports from the UK to France fell 30% in value in 2021 Pic: GLF Media / Shutterstock

Higher costs, new paperwork, reduced trade and more trucks running empty – these are some of the impacts of Brexit so far.

The French Douanes (customs) service spoke to The Connexion 13 months after border formalities were re-established UK-to-France and a month after France-to-UK customs formalities restarted.

Exports from the UK to France fell 30% in value in 2021, the first year of full Brexit, compared to 2019, it said. Exports from France to the UK were down 15% in value.

The flow of trucks is now back to 95% of 2019 rates with the Douanes reporting that it is hard to know how much of the dip was due to Brexit and how much to the pandemic. 

Half of all trucks now return to France empty

However, one change is an increase in empty trucks returning without goods picked up in the UK. This is ‘stuck’ at 50% of trucks, compared to 30% in the past.

Hervé Mathevet, in charge of Brexit in Hauts-de-France and, last year, the Douanes’ attaché in London, said: “Automatically and unfortunately – and we can only regret it – reestablishment of a border supposes  formalities of several kinds. It is something that is an extra burden on importers or exporters compared to before and necessarily more complicated.”

The much-feared long queues of lorries had on the whole not materialised, said Caroline de Saussure, in charge of Brexit for the Douanes’ international relations section. 

Read more: Border complexities blamed for Fortnum & Mason pausing EU deliveries

She said France and the UK created ‘intelligent’ systems where customs declarations are made before arrival and only a small number of trucks are selected to be stopped – 20% in 2021, according to a recent Douanes report. Some were to finalise formalities, and some to undergo customs or health inspections. 

Some 3.6 million trucks went through France’s system in 2021.

There were teething problems, with 30% of trucks in January 2022 turning up without the right UK customs declarations after the system started. That is now one to two per cent.

There are also some busy days, specifically at Dover, which the officials said was more down to the layout of the port, near the town and cliffs, than customs checks.

Ms de Saussure, one of the organisers, with Mr Mathevet, of a recent conference on Brexit impacts, said recent years were “very intense and full of twists and turns”, especially as the date of Brexit, with or without a deal, changed several times. 

There were staffing and IT problems, and they had to persuade sceptical firms who “didn’t believe in it” to get ready.

Both stressed that extra formalities do not only concern customs in the strict sense, as several bodies are involved with different formalities, though “in people’s minds everything to do with the border means customs”, Ms de Saussure said.

Read more: La Poste claims improvement to custom charge issue for foreign parcels

For example, the problem of parcels containing low-value gifts or those on which VAT has already been paid (see below) having duty and taxes levied wrongly in France often relates to errors either by transport firms which must carry out customs formalities for the items they transport, or senders in the UK. 

Mr Mathevet said: “Remember, though, that gifts are not always tax-free, it depends on value. You can find information at douane.gouv.fr

“It is a bit complicated, but it’s the problem of a border – there are a lot of regulations that accumulate.”

Animal and plant health certificates and checks are run by agriculture ministries and must be paid for. Formalities such as these led to firms including Fortnum & Mason and M&S stopping sending food to France. 

The officials said some French firms are worried as these regulations will be introduced, France to UK, in three stages depending on product, in July, September and November.

“It’s creating confusion as to what is needed and when,” Mr Mathevet said. “And new safety and security declarations are also coming in, France to UK. 

“It will be another new document required, for which the transporters will no doubt bill, and another cost for firms.”

Health certificates – for meat, dairy, plants, fruit and vegetables – mean it is no longer practical to send a heavily mixed lorry of goods, said Ms de Saussure.

Firms might want to look at sending a large quantity of one kind of item. It will be harder for small firms sending French food to the UK, the officials agreed.

Customs declarations for individuals moving personal items to houses in France - “people who want to go over for the summer with a wardrobe, a chainsaw, take DIY materials, etc” - are another new requirement attracting a lot of questions. 

Those moving permanently must make an inventory and declaration but there is no tax or duty. Those moving items permanently to a second home might incur both, though the amount is often low, according to Mr Mathevet, especially if items are old and worn.

Small items coming to France and back among personal effects are not a problem, he said, though for larger or more valuable items a carnet ATA temporary import document is needed to be tax and duty-exempt. There were a few problems with people turning up unaware of this but Mr Mathevet said: “We need proportionate checks, so we stop things that are a danger or tax evasion risk. 

“We’re not going to stop every car to see if there are two paperbacks that might end up staying in the house in Lozère.”

Read more: France recorded its largest ever trade deficit in 2021, say Douanes

If you are bringing one or two significant items over, you can declare these at the border on arrival, he said, but for a large quantity it would be simpler to use a transporter who will take care of formalities.

Another key point, especially with more Britons starting to come back as Covid restrictions ease, is to ensure your pet has its paperwork in order, advised Ms de Saussure. Normally, this is checked in the UK before you board a ferry or train.

Mr Mathevet said: “People must understand now that the border is like going to the US or Japan.

“Once again, unfortunately, it’s a fact and you must prepare beforehand. You can’t just decide that morning to cross the Channel and go to your house or find a hotel.” For more, see the Douanes’ English-language pages at tinyurl.com/2p8965zu. 

Members of the public can put questions to Douanes Info Service, by phone or message, in French or English. Written messages may receive a fuller response. French firms can obtain help from regional centres. People in the UK can contact the attaché or French embassy.

  • Consumer magazine 60 Millions de Consommateurs reports increasing cases of people being charged VAT, and related admin fees, by La Poste for items bought outside the EU on which VAT was already paid. La Poste admits occasional errors are possible and says people should call 3631 in this case. However, sometimes it is because the sender did not correctly complete VAT formalities, in which case you can try to obtain a refund from the sender.
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