Airports, Customs, Trade: Europe Prepares for a Chaotic Brexit

British, European and French flags at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. (Reuters/Philippe Wojazer, File)

France is spending €50 million ($57 million) to beef up security at airports and the Eurotunnel, hiring hundreds of extra customs officers and issuing emergency decrees to gear up for the increasingly likely possibility that Britain will leave the European Union on March 29 without a plan.

Germany is fast-tracking a debate on solving bureaucratic problems in case of a no-deal Brexit. And the Netherlands has made a special exception to let British citizens stay in the country temporarily once they no longer enjoy EU residency rights.

A no-deal Brexit would shake up the rest of the continent in ways that many Europeans haven’t yet fathomed. Britain, which would face by far the biggest disruption, has devoted thousands of civil servants and several billion pounds to measures to mitigate the worst effect — although officials can only speculate about what will actually happen on March 30 if Brexit happens without a deal.

After the British Parliament overwhelmingly rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit divorce deal this week, other European governments are now bracing for chaos too.

“We strongly believe” Britain will leave with no exit deal, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced Thursday, unveiling a raft of emergency measures to cope with that prospect. “Under these conditions, our responsibility … is to ensure that our country is ready, that the interests of our citizens are preserved and defended.”

The French government will hire nearly 600 extra customs officers and veterinary inspectors and invest in new infrastructure at airports and ports. All are to be operational by March 30.

Special security measures will be put in place for the tunnel beneath the English Channel. The company that operates the Eurotunnel says a quarter of all U.K.-EU trade passes through the tunnel, which could be a major choke point in a no-deal Brexit.

The French prime minister insisted the measures are a “contingency plan” but says France can no longer wait for a potential deal or other developments.

France’s emergency decrees will allow British workers and retirees living in France to continue staying there for a year after March 29 — but only if the British government agrees to do the same for French citizens living in the U.K.

The decrees will temporarily let British companies transport goods in France, and allow certain British insurance and other financial activities to continue in France despite Britain’s loss of access to the EU financial market. The exceptional transfer of military equipment between the two countries will also be allowed.

In Berlin, German lawmakers were debating a bill Thursday meant to solve some bureaucratic issues arising from Brexit. The bill is now being fast-tracked.

“We want to keep the damage — and there will certainly be damage from Britain’s departure — as small as possible,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday. “That’s why we will of course do everything to find an orderly solution, but we are also prepared if there is no orderly solution.”

The Dutch government announced last week it will let British citizens living in the Netherlands remain in the country for 15 months in the event of a no-deal Brexit and offer them the opportunity to apply for residency permits.

In Britain, the government has begun to recruit hundreds of extra customs officers and border staff, and has passed laws to help cross-border trade continue to flow, such as permits for long-distance truckers. Britain says EU citizens will be able to stay temporarily in the event of a no-deal Brexit.