After midnight, Laurent Merlin crosses the border. It is a liquid and invisible border: the one that marks the division , in the English Channel, between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In British waters, he spends the night fishing, the trade to which this son and grandson of fishermen has dedicated himself since he was 14 years old. He is now 41.
At 9:30 in the morning, his ship, the Laurent-Geoffrey —11.85 meters long and with a crew of four — docks in the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, in northern France. It’s Wednesday, December 23rd.
And here begins a trip of this newspaper along the French coast in the final stretch of the Brexit negotiation, and while thousands of trucks are blocked on the other shore after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, closed for 48 hours the border with the United Kingdom to slow the spread of the pandemic.
“Today we have brought sole, sea bass, crustaceans. All of English waters ”, says Merlin in the port of Boulogne, under a cloudy sky and the rain and at the foot of some gray postwar buildings. “The French waters are empty, there is nothing. If there is no fix, I am dead. ”
The “fix” that Merlin was talking about is the trade agreement between the EU and the UK that finally arrived the next day and which, as of January 1, will regulate relations after Brexit. French fishermen will have to reduce their catches in British waters by 25%, with a transition period of five and a half years.
“I do not know how to do another thing. What I want is to go to sea ”, says the fisherman, father of two children, ages 10 and 19. He does not want them to dedicate themselves to a profession for which he sees no future. “I do not authorize them to fish,” ditch.
The journey begins in Boulogne, France’s first fishing port, and ends a day later 80 kilometers to the north, in Dunkirk, a symbol for the British of their epic fight in World War II.
This short fragment of the border – new and at the same time very old, a breaking point between the islands and the mainland and, at the same time, a bridge of union – concentrates many of the conflicts between the EU and the United Kingdom: fishing, immigration , memory and history.
This is where, at the end of the year, something that has happened in 2020 throughout Europe and the world has come together: the return of the borders, spurred by the will to protect themselves against the coronavirus and the nostalgia for sovereignty.
On the A-16 motorway, which connects Boulogne-sur-Mer with Calais, the illuminated panels repeat the same warning: “Strict closure of the border from England to France”.
Calais is the main maritime passage for goods and people between the European mainland and the British Isles. There are two ways. One is the Eurotunnel , which was launched in the 1990s under the illusion that it would remove the Canal’s geographic barrier and break the UK’s isolation. The second is the ferry port, which absorbs half the traffic to Dover.
Like the city of El Paso between the USA and Mexico or Ceuta and Melilla between Spain and Morocco, Calais is a border city, although 27 nautical miles separate it from the neighboring country. Barbed wire fences line some streets and highways.
“I don’t have a house or money. In France they don’t give us papers. In the UK, we don’t know, ”says Ali Ahmed, a 35-year-old Sudanese who has just picked up a bag of food that an NGO is distributing in front of the ruins of Fort Nieulay, with a mixture of English and French.
This seventeenth-century fortification then had a dual function, similar to that of this still half-walled city of 75,000 inhabitants: a toll for goods passing through Calais and protection against armed attacks. In the distance, protected by more barbed wire, you can see the ramp that leads to the Eurotunnel.
Between the walls of the Old Regime and the wires of the 21st century, Ali Ahmed tells that he arrived two weeks ago and sleeps in the open. It is the penultimate stage, for him and many migrants, of a journey of months or years, before the final destination on the other side of the Canal. In a bus? In patera?
One of the last service stations before accessing the tunnel and the port is surrounded by a three meter high wall. The goal: to prevent migrants from jumping into refueling trucks before crossing. Last June, someone wrote on the wall a phrase that the French leader, Emmanuel Macron, had pronounced a while before, probably thinking of the president of the United States , Donald Trump: “I don’t believe in people who build walls. It does not work”.
800 meters from the gas station, in an industrial area, David Sagnard has his truck trailers parked at the headquarters of Carpentier Logistique, the transport company he runs. The border remains blocked, and you don’t want to risk getting your drivers stuck in Dover.
It implies that Macron and his European partners closed the border not only to curb the virus, but to scare British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the chaotic effects of a no-deal Brexit on January 1.
“When you are in an economic war, who do you send to the front? To the infantry, to the soldiers. And who are the soldiers in this war? The transport of goods by road ”, says Sagnard.
One block from Carpentier Logistique, The Calais Wine Superstore is empty with no customers. There is no sign of the English tourists who often take the ferry back and forth to buy cheaper alcohol at this warehouse which advertises itself – in English – as ‘the only British-owned and independent wine shop in Calais’.
“The more you spend, the more you save,” says a sign at the entrance. Another advertises an offer of a free Eurotunnel or ferry ticket if the customer reserves the wine cases in advance.
The Brexit? “We’ll see,” the manager replies skeptically, fed up with years of uncertainty. Like many in Calais, he spent the week pending negotiations in Brussels . Their future and that of the city depended on them.
When the pandemic is definitely under control, Thursday’s trade agreement between London and Brussels should allow traffic and trade between the two parties to resume with more or less fluidity. The “alcoholic cruises”, as they are popularly known, could also be resumed.
The journey across the new liquid border of the EU ends 40 kilometers up the coast, on the beach at Dunkerque. In few places are the history of France and the United Kingdom so intimately intertwined as in this city.
From here, in the last days of May and the beginning of June 1940, the British evacuated with Royal Navy ships and fishing boats – not so different from the Laurent-Geoffrey de Boulogne-sur-Mer – tens of thousands of soldiers besieged by Hitler. They would leave and return four years later, and a few hundred kilometers south, at the Normandy landings.
“The spirit of Dunkirk … is still a potent factor in the way the British think about themselves and the difference between themselves and the continental nations,” editor Michael Korda wrote in Alone. Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: defeat into victory (Solos. Great Britain, Churchill and Dunkirk: from defeat to victory).
“Dunkirk has something to do with the emotions of those who called for Brexit, the British exit from the European Union in 2016. There was a feeling of national relief in 1940 as they left the continent and retreated behind the white cliffs of Dover.”
It is Thursday, December 24, and in Brussels the negotiators are putting the final touches on the divorce agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The wind blows and the sun finally rises. At one end of the beach, a monument rises, a stern piece of stone on which a text is read in large sculpted letters:
“To the glorious memory of the airmen, sailors and soldiers of the French and allied armies who sacrificed themselves at the Battle of Dunkirk in May and June 1940 ”. Among the large letters, someone has left small wooden crosses with a cloth poppy stuck with a nail. And a message: ” In remembrance “; “In memory”.