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In less than three months, the United Kingdom could walk away from the European Union, one of the world's largest trading blocs, with no future agreement on trade. That has U.K. exporters and freight companies around the Port of Dover worried about how thousands of trucks will make the journey across the English Channel each day. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Dover.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE REVVING)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: For decades, transporting goods across the channel has been easy. The United Kingdom's membership in the European Union means there are no customs checks to hold trucks up. Julian Keet is director of Laser Transport International, a global freight logistics company.
JULIAN KEET: It's totally seamless. Relating to your American audience - if you were going to drive from New York down to Miami, you just drive - simple as that. And there's no documentation.
LANGFITT: But if the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29 without some kind of deal - what everyone here calls a no-deal Brexit - Keet says moving goods across the channel could become a lot more cumbersome. He worries new customs checks could cause big backups.
KEET: You could end up with vehicles losing half a day, a day, even longer while you end up waiting to get documentation processed.
LANGFITT: Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association, which represents half the trucks in the country, paints an even gloomier picture.
ROD MCKENZIE: Well, the potential is pretty scary. We could see 20 or 30 miles of lorry traffic queuing towards Dover, which is the No. 1 port with the continent.
LORENZO ZACCHEO: That's why we bought a helicopter, you see?
LANGFITT: That's Lorenzo Zaccheo. He's managing director of Alcaline Group, a supply chain specialist. Zaccheo plans to use his new helicopter to leapfrog any lines at the channel. Among other things, his company delivers auto parts. Delays in filling just-in-time inventory can cause factory lines to halt at a huge cost. So if there are backups, Zaccheo plans to fly small parts across the channel to keep assembly lines rolling.
ZACCHEO: We're talking hubcaps. We're talk very small items. And that's when you have to employ the helicopter because, basically, there's a large number of cars standing on the assembly line that needs all these parts.
LANGFITT: The U.K. government has tried to make contingency plans for traffic jams at Dover. The government has hired companies to run ferries from other ports, but the sole English firm involved doesn't actually have any ships. On Monday, officials tested an alternate truck route to the port using an abandoned airport as a staging area. But Zaccheo said the first run involved just a tiny fraction of vehicles compared to the daily traffic flow.
ZACCHEO: We all believe that that was a complete waste of time and money as well because it doesn't reflect reality because they went there for about a hundred vehicles, and we're talking about 10,000 a day.
LANGFITT: Zaccheo worries about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on business. But interestingly, he still supports leaving the EU. Zaccheo grew up in Italy. He came here more than three decades ago and considers himself British. He says the United Kingdom needs more control over immigration.
ZACCHEO: I think we're diluting our own identity, I think in a way, as a nation.
LANGFITT: Not everyone is worried about long lines to cross the channel. The head of the French port of Calais insists everything will run smoothly on the 29, even if the U.K. and the EU are separate economies. That seems good enough for Charlie Elphicke, member of the British Parliament in the Conservative Party, who represents Dover.
CHARLIE ELPHICKE: The authorities in charge of Calais say they have no intention of any delays, go-slows or holdups.
LANGFITT: Elphicke is pro-Brexit. He says the U.K. government has just whipped up concern over Dover for political reasons. Elphicke says it wants to win support for Prime Minister Theresa May's unpopular Brexit withdrawal agreement, which could keep Britain closely aligned with the EU for years.
ELPHICKE: It's a case of what we call Project Fear. The people who don't want to leave the European Union or are afraid to leave the European Union are trying to say we can't manage outside Europe and that, therefore, we need to stay close or, indeed, remain in it.
LANGFITT: The U.K. government, though, is cautious about how the Port of Calais might operate in a no-deal Brexit, pointing out that food items, such as British beef and lamb, could suddenly face comprehensive health inspections at the border.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Dover. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.