Duty-free again on cross-Channel trips?

Unfair that ferries have duty-free and not Eurotunnel

The French are very keen to restart duty-free shops at Calais, especially at the Coquelles terminal of Getlink (the Eurotunnel). The trade union for Getlink employees put open letters in French newspapers this week to publicise their demand that duty-free sales should be allowed. They want a meeting with the First Minister. To pile on the pressure they threaten a ‘go-slow’ strike (operation escargot = snail operation).

The director of Getlink, Yann Leriche, says he has had meetings with the ministers for public accounts and for ecological transition. (What a lovely portfolio name – I wish we had such a department in the UK or KCC!) Duty-free sales were stopped in 1999 when it was making about €320m a year.  By a EU directive of 2008, tax was lifted for third countries only for ferries and airlines. This did not apply to the UK which was still part of the EU. 

But now, after Brexit, the ferries and airlines have immediately re-started duty-free sales for cross-Channel passengers, but Getlink is unable to do so because EU directive 2008 does not apply to the tunnel. This is unfair.  In December, the National Assembly of France set up a special commission to look into the matter, but decisions have yet to be made. The original contracts for the Eurotunnel duty-free sales were with the company ‘World Duty free’ who contracted with both the British and French Governments.  Getlink are considering legal action, or even private arbitration. 

But this is a legal minefield, as the UK no longer accepts rulings from the European Court of Justice, which is the EU institution for trade disputes. So it is hoped that a quicker decision can be made by the politicians.

The financial calculation is that, without the extra customers generated by duty-free, Getlink loses customers to the boats. Bookings from British travellers increased by 125% in late May on the lifting of some lockdown restrictions.  The majority of travellers in cars through the tunnel are Brits. They do not just want to go across – they also spend as tourists.

For Getlink, restarting duty-free is important for gaining more bookings, for job creation (possibly 100 jobs), for increased turnover of up to €160m, the director reckons. It would also stop the firm from having to apply for public subsidy again at the end of the year.

A local journalist, Eric Dauchat, describes in ‘La voix du Nord’, what duty-free trade means in Calais. He describes how the buses filled with Brits buying booze used to stop outside the hypermarkets and load up with boxes of drink. In some of the supermarket aisles no French could be heard. At Christmas-time, there had to be arrangements for advance orders otherwise the local residents could not even get to buy themselves. The Brits would fill the restaurants too. 

Allowing duty-free trade again would be like manna in the desert for the people of Calais, who have been suffering from migrants, Covid, and lack of jobs.  So give us a boost, now, he pleads.

The Kent side of the argument

Whoa .. but what are the other sides of this argument?  Those of us old enough to remember being foot passengers on the ferries in our student days will recall that our fellow-passengers were mostly those smuggling cigarettes.  Maybe this is why even the CEO of Getlink is realistic that the profits of 2021 duty-free would be half that of 1999, as hopefully demand for tobacco has reduced in the UK. 

On the British side of discussion, health concerns should be noted that duty-free should not inflict more cost to the NHS from tobacco-addicted patients.  Covid restrictions on both sides of the Channel are also likely to restrict the flow of travellers for some months to come. Will they be lifted soon enough to save the finances and workers of Getlink in time for Noel?

Matters to discuss with the Minister for Ecological transition (and the equivalent if they can be found in the UK) is whether duty-free incentives cause excessive planet-heating travel. Rail travel is less harmful than car-journeys, and at least those buses are taken on the train to Calais. 

From the perspective of Kent rail travellers wanting to connect to French local trains it would be good if part of the negotiations could include allowing foot passengers on to the Getlink car trains at Folkestone. Or allowing rail passengers to embark in Ashford and connect to the French local trains in Calais.

Cross-Channel shopping could be enhanced with various deals for Ashford-Lille tickets: Kent shoppers could then purchase in Lille the French cheese and other French delicacies that seem to be in shorter supply  post-Brexit in British supermarkets, and French shoppers could disembark for the Ashford Designer outlet.