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Brexit and border closures create dual challenges in Britain

There is something close to chaos in southeastern England, where thousands of trucks began crawling toward Europe after a full-border closure between the U.K. and the continent due to COVID-19. This comes just eight days before the U.K. leaves the European Union. NewsHour Special Correspondent Ryan Chilcote reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we noted earlier, there is something close to chaos in Southeastern England, as thousands of trucks start to crawl toward Europe, after a full border closure between the United Kingdom and the continent due to COVID-19.

    All this comes just eight days before the U.K. leaves the European Union after a four-and-a-half year divorce that is now in its final and excruciating stages.

    From the Southern port of Eastbourne, both on land and sea, here's special correspondent Ryan Chilcote.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    It's 5:00 a.m., and the crew of the Talisman are already preparing the bait. There's just a few days left until the holidays, and there's a premium to be had if they can get these crab up and on to dinner tables in time for Christmas.

    They normally share this spot with French boats eight miles off the English coast, but it's rough, raining, and a Sunday. Just as well they're not here today. British fishermen say they got a raw deal when the U.K. joined the European Union and divvied up its fish 40 years ago, and it's stank ever since.

    How do you feel about the French fishing in British waters?

  • Michael Newton-Smith:

    Yes, I'm OK with it, as long as it's reciprocal. At the moment, it's not.

    From the coastline, it's six nautical miles out, the French can fish just back of that line. We don't have the same deal. It's not reciprocal. In France, it's from the coastline to 12 nautical miles out.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    It can get crowded in the English Channel and messy, like in 2018, when British and French fishermen clashed in what was dubbed the Scallop Wars.

    By sunrise, Michael and the crew have pulled 150 pots. Brown and spider crab that are too small or have eggs go right back in.

    After nine months of nail-biting round-the-clock trade talks between the U.K. and E.U., the final snag? How much access the U.K. gives to its fishing waters and the seafood they contain.

    Talks between the British and the European Union have intensified in the past few days, and the French may have helped focus minds. Saturday, after the U.K. announced it had detected a new strain of the coronavirus, the country closed its borders, leaving thousands of trucks and truckers stranded, unable to cross the English Channel.

    In Southeast England, tempers flared. One German trucker stuck in the U.K. summed up the frustrations.

  • Mekki Coskun:

    This is not how it should work, yes? OK, Brexit one side, but other side is COVID? I don't know.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Some British officials even believe the French wanted to give Britain a taste of what leaving the European Union without a deal might look like in just eight days. The French say they were just trying to prevent the strain's spread.

    The borders are now open to all drivers who test negative, but it may take weeks to clear the backlog. The disruption to trade stoked fears of food shortages.

    Full of crab, one of these containers is worth about $300, not a bad catch, but in comparison to the size of the British economy, just a drop in the ocean. In fact, the entire U.K. fishing industry is worth just one-tenth of 1 percent of British GDP.

    The E.U., the U.K.'s largest trading partner, says it will introduce tariffs on British exports, including fish, if the two sides fail to reach a deal by New Year's Eve.

    All the crab, lobster that you caught today, where's that all going?

  • Michael Newton-Smith:

    That's all going to mainland Europe. That's all going for a Christmas market in Portugal, Spain, France. It'll end up in French and Spanish and Portuguese households. They will eat that over Christmas. They pay good money.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    While Michael says he would welcome a fair deal, he also sees opportunity in markets like China and back at home.

  • Michael Newton-Smith:

    I think if one of the upshots of Brexit is that British people eat British fish, then we're winning there.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Back in the harbor, they're collecting their catch from a makeshift repository, getting them ready to be shipped across the channel.

    Despite all the disruption, by the way, the crabs made it to their destination.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ryan Chilcote in Eastbourne, England.

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