I cannot begin to calculate how many lorries would have to park nose to tail to form a queue 30 miles long but that's what they had in Kent last week and on several other occasions during the last couple of months. I say a queue 30 miles long -yes, THIRTY - but it was, in fact, only 15 miles long, but the lorries were parked in both the left hand lane and the right hand lane of a three-lane motorway, leaving the centre lane free for police cars and other emergency and service vehicles. At one point, the average waiting time in that queue was 18 hours! Small wonder that portaloos had been placed at intervals along the hard shoulder and that meals and drinks were being delivered to the lorry drivers caught up in the mayhem. That is Operation Stack, the parking of lorries bound for Calais but delayed.
Most of my British readers will be well aware of the existence of this problem but for those dropping by from more distant shores, I will provide a brief background before I go on to what I really want to get off my chest.
You must realise that the English port of Dover in east Kent and the French port of Calais provide the shortest ferry crossing route between Great Britain and continental Europe. (Dover claims to be the busiest port in the world as it has so many sailings in and out, not all of them to Calais.) Calais is also the site of the French end of the Channel Tunnel, the English end being near Folkestone, just a few miles from Dover. Between them, the Dover-Calais ferries and the Channel Tunnel carry most of the goods being imported and exported between the UK and Europe. The Tunnel also has high-speed trains connecting London with Paris, Brussels and other European cities. On top of that, there are the private cars using both ferries and tunnel for business and holiday purposes.
There are two principal reasons for the M20 motorway, leading to both the tunnel and the ferry port, being turned into the world's biggest lorry park.. The first is a purely local matter: the sale of a ferry company by one operator to another will cause job losses to French seamen. They have called a number of wildcat strikes and have set fires on roads leading to the Calais port and on railway tracks at the entrance to the tunnel. This has, obviously, caused disruption to services.
The second reason is rather more complex, involving as it does, citizens of various Middle Eastern and North African states. People from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and other countries are anxious to settle in Europe. So anxious are they, that people smugglers cram them into unseaworthy boats to cross from Libya to Italy and from Turkey to Greece. But Italy and Greece are not the preferred destinations of the majority of these illegal immigrants. A large proportion of them head for England as that is the only language in which they have at least a few words - other than their mother tongues. As a result of what is called the Schengen agreement, people can pass freely between most European countries in the same way as they pass from one county to another. So, once in Italy or Greece, the migrants slowly make their way across Europe to Calais to attempt the short crossing to their El Dorado, their Shangri-La. But the UK has not adopted the Schengen agreement and our borders are, officially at least, closed. People crossing into the UK are subject to checks - and the would-be immigrants would not be allowed through. They must therefore seek clandestine ways to enter the UK, such as hiding in the back of lorries, riding on top of the lorries or even on lorry axles. Others try to jump onto the trains carrying lorries through the tunnel. Understandably, accidents happen, accidents which only exacerbate the problem caused by the striking seamen and result in further delays.
But that's enough for today. It's time to put the kettle on and then see if there are any gooseberries to be picked.