The current strike by French ferry workers at Calais is arguably the worst in living memory. It has forced the closure of the Port of Calais and the Channel Tunnel and caused chaos on the roads of Kent, as lorries bound for the continent have been stacked for days on the county’s motorways, waiting for a passage to France.
The scale of this crisis, and the impact it has cross-channel trade, is a direct result of the failure of the French authorities to act. They are giving the impression of being totally powerless in the face of the industrial action which has been launched by the ferry workers. Yet this has not been some peaceful and lawful protest. The strikers have been able to commit trespass and criminal damage wherever they like and with no apparent sanction from the law.
This week the strikers used electrical angle grinders to cut through high security fencing protecting one of the most sensitive areas in the Channel Tunnel site, at Coquelles near Calais. This is a massive breach in security, and it is hard to believe anything like it would be allowed to occur in the UK. Once inside, the strikers set burning tyres on the Eurotunnel tracks - the same tracks that are used by Eurostar passenger trains travelling at up to 100 mph as they leave the tunnel. This action not only damaged the tracks, making it necessary to replace them, but could easily have endangered the lives of people using the tunnel services.
The French authorities detained these strikers, but they had already been released before the services that they disrupted had been restored. If they had committed these actions at an airport, they would undoubtedly be in serious trouble. The Eurotunnel business is seeking to secure the prosecution of 28 individuals on grounds of criminal damage and endangering life. This is absolutely the right approach, as there should be legal sanction for their behaviour. Yet the French authorities themselves have taken little or no action.
Instead, the ferry workers appear to be able to cause a blockade at any site they chose. Indeed, some authorities are actually backing them. The Mayor of Calais is marching shoulder to shoulder with them, and the President of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, Daniel Percheron, has gone even further. Mr Percheron, who is a member of the Socialist Party and represents the same region in the French Senate, also recently declared that he will give a thousand-euro bonus to anyone who helps to blockade the Channel Tunnel at Calais.
The massive delays at the Tunnel have also encouraged the migrants camping near to Calais to try and board transport waiting to enter the port and tunnel. Again, the French authorities have allowed large numbers of people traveling without papers, who have not yet claimed asylum or been able to offer any proof of a legal right to remain in that country (let alone enter the UK), to camp close to the Port and the Tunnel.
They are there, living in desperate conditions, and often at the mercy of criminal people smuggling gangs, because the French authorities allow them to be there.
The first duty to protect the Tunnel and Port in French territory, and the passengers who use it, must belong to the authorities in that country. They have failed in this obligation. Nevertheless, the UK government has offered help, giving £12 million in support to improve the security at Calais, including donating new high security fencing.
With the threat of further French strikes this summer it again raises the question about the costs of Operation Stack, the system of parking lorries on the M20 motorway in Kent whilst they wait for services to the continent to resume. In 2014 our government introduced a charging scheme for foreign lorries, so that they are now required to pay a fee to drive on our roads. If we are going to have more incidents of Operation Stack over the coming months, we should look at potentially increasing this charge in order to cover more of these costs.