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The Channel Tunnel: the other Brexit border

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Laurent Bonnaud.

Laurent Bonnaud, a long-time student of the Channel Tunnel and its place as the only land border between the UK and mainland Europe, considers the history of this border and how it is changing with Brexit.

Thirty years ago, on 1 December 2020, two Channel Tunnel workers shook hands through the final hand-dug connection between the English and French service tunnels. France’s Philippe Cozette and English tunnel-boring machine operator Graham Fagg, had established the first land border between the UK and mainland Europe.

On 8 October 2020, the European Parliament approved legislation to ensure safe Channel Tunnel operations post-Brexit. France was empowered to begin negotiations with the UK as, in addition to COVID-19, Brexit will have far-reaching consequences for connections at the cross-Channel border, one of the busiest tunnels and border crossings in the world.

A look back at the history of the Anglo-French ‘border’ will aid understanding of the issues at stake.

Breakthrough! British and French tunnellers meet under the Channel, 1 December 1990.

The Treaty of Canterbury and the first Franco-British physical border

For centuries, the French had defended the country’s fortified coastline while the Royal Navy prevailed over the English Channel.

Then, in 1860, the Cobden-Chevalier free trade agreement and subsequent pioneer projects for a tunnel under the Straits of Dover prompted exploration of the border issue in 1875. But the first attempt to bore a tunnel was blocked in 1882, and the status quo was maintained.

Two early tunnelling machines bored shafts from Shakespeare Cliff (1,893 metres) and Sangatte (1,669 metres) in 1881. The project was cancelled in 1882.

In 1973, another ‘Chunnel’ project, and the UK accession to the EC, were strong incentives to make a fresh attempt to define a border with France. However, Britain cancelled the tunnel in 1975 and it took another decade and a United Nations arbitration to establish the limits of the Franco-British Continental shelf. The London agreement of 24 June 1982 primarily concerned natural resources, like fishing. It came just before the Montego Bay Convention on the Law of the Sea and the definition of Exclusive Economic Zones (EZZs).

The perception of borders still differed in the mid-1980s, during another round of negotiations for a Fixed Channel Link, which finally succeeded. The UK favoured immigration controls at entry points, ports and airports, whereas France made controls throughout its territory.

Two main options were on the table: controls on entering the tunnel and checks on-board trains.

Both countries were eager to promote trade and the EC made the removal of border controls a priority. The Fixed Link consisted of twinned bored tunnels, a service gallery and terminals in Cheriton and Coquelles. It would carry millions of passengers and tons of freight on railway shuttles for road vehicles, freight trains and high-speed passenger trains. Operating this unique undersea connection, while maintaining the highest degree of safety and security would be a major challenge.

The bilateral treaty, signed in Canterbury on 12 February 1986, defined the first physical border ever between the UK and the continent as the vertical projection of the line first agreed in London in 1982. It separated the French and British sections of the tunnel. Metal plates marked it in the service gallery after that 1990 breakthrough by Graham Fagg and Philippe Cozette and at customs offices on the construction sites. The Treaty established an Intergovernmental Commission to supervise the Fixed Link.

Juxtaposed controls, such as those long in force in transalpine tunnels, were finally agreed in view of the limited space available at Cheriton and to allow a smoother flow of traffic. Since the debates remained lively, the concession signed on 14 March 1986 left the option of on-board controls open.

Juxtaposed border control. French border police carry out immigration checks at London St Pancras.

A progressive focus on immigration control

London and Paris signed the Sangatte Protocol on 25 November 1991, establishing the ground rules for the Fixed Link in terms of border controls, police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, civil security and mutual assistance.

On 1 January 1993, internal border controls disappeared within the Single Market of the European Union, making free movement of goods, services, capital and people a reality between Member States.

Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles, France.

The Fixed Link made an exception as it opened in 1994. The highest concern was to ensure security and safety in the tunnel, including deterring terrorist action, particularly by the IRA. Border controls were established at the Shuttle’s two terminal installation, so, to some extent, the British border moved to Coquelles and the French border to Cheriton.

On-board checks were considered for high-speed passenger trains, but the British authorities were unwilling to accept armed French police officers on UK territory.

A turning point came in 1995. France joined the Schengen area, whereas the UK and Ireland did not, though enjoying exemptions. The Sangatte Protocol was adjusted on 29 May 2000. Passenger control desks were set up in Paris, Brussels, London, Ashford, Calais and Lille stations.

Brussels South station in 2019.

The short crossing distance (32km),  and the concentration of transport services have long made the Strait of Dover an attractive route for illegal migrants. From the late 1990s onwards, migration flows to the Calais region increased as refugees from the Balkans and the Middle-East tried to reach the British Isles. Individuals or groups tried to board through-trains or trucks at the risk of their lives.

Traffic was inevitably affected, aggravating the concessionaire’s financial difficulties. Although French authorities closed down the overcrowded Sangatte refugee centre at the end of 2002, camps continued to form between the Coquelles terminal and the port of Calais, in conditions denounced by charities and human rights defenders.

Since the early 2000s, border protection has been steadily strengthened, but migrants have continued to arrive in the region and to focus on the least protected crossing modes. On 4 February 2003, the Treaty of Le Touquet extended to seaports and ferries the juxtaposed controls and ad hoc provisions adopted for the Railway Link. Treaties and protocols were supplemented by numerous administrative arrangements and no less than six joint political declarations.

The English Eurotunnel terminal at Cheriton, Kent.

Further to the Evian Summit on 6 July 2009, a Joint Intelligence Centre has been created in Folkestone, to lead the fight against immigration networks. In Calais, a Joint Operational Coordination Centre combines both the French Customs and Border Police (PAF) and the UK Border Force.

Following an upsurge in the number of migrants due to the Syrian crisis, and following terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, fencing and surveillance of the Eurotunnel site, the Port of Calais and its ring road have been significantly reinforced. On 18 January 2018, a treaty on the strengthening of cooperation for the coordinated management of the Franco-British border was signed in Sandhurst.

With the Fixed Link and the port of Calais now highly secure, migrants try to cross the Channel in dinghies and inflatable boats. In addition to the security measures already in place, a Franco-British Operational Research Unit to combat migrant smuggling was announced on 12 July 2020 and a Clandestine Channel Commander was appointed in the UK on 9 August 2020 in a bid to make the sea route unviable.

A genuine overhaul of the legal and institutional framework of the Franco-British border has therefore been put in place since 1986. It extends beyond the letter and spirit of the Treaty of Canterbury, and the technological, safety and security aspects specific to the Fixed Link, to cover police and judicial cooperation and migration policies. Brexit thoroughly reformulates this complex equation.

Ireland’s cross-border Enterprise Train on the Boyne viaduct at Drogheda.

The other Brexit border

As between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the cross-Channel border separated two EU Member States up until 31 January 2020, with only France in the Schengen area. Since then, it separates an EU Member State and an independent nation. The Withdrawal Agreement with the EU stipulates that bilateral arrangements should facilitate cross-border rail services such as ‘the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Line and services through the Channel Tunnel’.

Free movement will end from 1 January 2021. Unless a last-minute agreement is reached, the transit formalities provided for by the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will apply for goods. On 10 December, the EU proposed contingency measures to ensure the fluidity of traffic in the first half of 2021.

Additional administrative and customs controls will affect logistics chains that have become closely integrated since 1994, thanks to the reliability provided by the Railway Link. Highly sensitive sanitary, veterinary and phytosanitary controls are the most complex to implement. EU and British citizens’ right to stay will be limited. Passports will become compulsory from 1 October 2021.

Moreover, the UK will probably lose access to EU database and it will no longer be part of the Dublin Convention which, despite its weaknesses, provides a legal framework to return illegal migrants.

Efficiently managing the Channel Tunnel and its border will require close cooperation between the UK, France and the EU. The Treaty of Canterbury, subsequent texts and the Intergovernmental Commission have been established between two Member States under EU law: they need updating.

On 27 July 2020, the European Commission proposed to keep a single safety authority for the British and French sections of the Fixed Link under EU rules and to empower France to negotiate with the UK to that end. The Court of Justice of the EU would remain the arbitration authority. In response, the Department for Transport has expressed the opinion that these proposals, approved by the European Parliament on 8 October, are not consistent with the UK Government’s sovereignty objectives.

In 2019, the Fixed Link carried 1.6 million lorries, 2.6 million cars and 21 million passengers. As of 30 November 2020, lorry traffic was down 10 per cent year-to-date and car traffic 45 per cent, primarily due to the covid-19 Pandemic.

However, the strategic significance of the Fixed Link for British and Irish trade and food supply, express delivery and tourism remain strong incentives to defend the spirit of the Treaty of Canterbury. Effective border management is essential. Since 2017, stakeholders have recruited additional staff, developed new customs and parking facilities, including the ten sites announced in the UK on 8 October 2020, and invested in technologies that facilitate controls, such as the virtual portfolio of transit documents presented by the concessionaire on 29 October 2020.

The British National Audit Office predicts “significant disruption at the border from 1 January 2021”. This is already the case for lorry traffic. But the Railway Link has considerable capacity available and could accommodate many more direct freight trains, as its promoters predicted in the 1980s. This environmentally friendly solution would alleviate bottlenecks in the Kent and Hauts de France regions.

As the transition period comes to an end, the Tunnel and its border appear, more than ever, a strategic asset for both the UK and the EU. History, geography and technology have shaped the Channel border and its management. This will not change, and its control will remain the prerogative of the States, possibly with delegation to private bodies.

But whereas EU law bound the signatories of the Canterbury Treaty, Brexit makes the UK a Third Country. This has far-reaching implications for the governance of the Fixed Link and of its border, which is likely to evolve further. The simplicity of the slogan Get Brexit Done hides the complexity of many issues in the Pandora’s box it has opened.


Laurent Bonnaud.

Laurent Bonnaud is the founder of Sponte sua sprl, a public history agency based in Brussels. He studied in Paris and Oxford and wrote his doctoral thesis on the Channel Tunnel.

Since then, he has held responsibilities in investment banking, has lectured economic history at Sciences-Po Paris and la Sorbonne and published several books and articles on the Channel Tunnel, FrancoBritish relations, railways and aerospace in Europe.

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