How Brexit boosted French and Irish ports

The cheapest way from Ireland to Europe used to be via Dover. But now Cherbourg and Rosslare are thriving

Rain or shine, Colm Lambert likes to sit on a bench overlooking Rosslare port on the south-eastern tip of Ireland and watch the new freight ships and passenger ferries sailing in from the Irish Sea.

“They’re coming in from France, Spain, Belgium, Holland – it’s great to see,” he said. “Brexit has made an awful difference to here. Boris Johnson did Rosslare a favour.”

Lambert, 81, a retired Irish customs officer, may draw the line at erecting a statue to Britain’s former prime minister, but he appreciates Brexit’s transformative impact on the once-stagnant port where he used to work. “It’s created jobs.”

A little over 340 nautical miles away in Cherbourg, Normandy, Yannick Millet, the port’s managing director, is equally enthusiastic. “The Brits may be suffering from Brexit,” he said. “But for us, it’s boom time. Traffic with Ireland is through the roof.”

For decades, the cheapest and fastest way to move goods between Ireland and the continent was the so-called “land bridge” via Britain and the Dover-Calais crossing. Brexit’s double whammy of customs checks and delays has hugely increased both costs and uncertainty, prompting businesses to bypass the UK.

The consequences for the two ports have been spectacular. Given a chance by Brexit to persuade traders that the longer sea crossing between Ireland and mainland Europe was now viable, Cherbourg and Rosslare have seized it with both hands.

Before the UK left the EU, Rosslare Europort was an underused facility with just six sailings a week to the continent, all into Cherbourg. Now it has 30-plus, to Cherbourg, Le Havre, Bilbao, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge – a fivefold increase that has led to record overall freight traffic.

“Brexit gave us an opportunity,” said Glenn Carr, the port’s general manager. “Industry wanted stability in the supply chain. We adapted.”

Weekly sailings from Cherbourg to Irish ports, meanwhile, will by this summer have more than doubled to a round dozen, with Irish Ferries sailing four times a week to Dublin, Stena Line six times a week to Rosslare, and Brittany Ferries also returning to the Rosslare route after a long absence.

“There’s a real dynamic with Ireland, and authorities at both ends are working hard to foster it,” said Millet. “In terms of our passenger numbers, Ireland has now overtaken the UK, and that looks certain to continue. And as for freight, it’s trebled. More and more, Ireland is looking like the future.”

In 2019, when the UK was still in the Brexit transition period, fewer than 35,000 HGVs passed through the Normandy port on their way to Ireland, Millet said; the average over the past two years, with Britain out of the EU’s regulatory orbit, was 96,000.

“That’s absolutely a Brexit effect,” he said. “The land bridge via Britain is broken, and we’re the beneficiaries.”

The same goes for Rosslare. Geography favoured the port, Ireland’s closest to mainland Europe, as did spare capacity and decent motorway connections to both Dublin and Belfast. As a consequence, the post-Brexit figures tell their own story.

Freight to and from mainland Europe soared from just 36,000 units in 2019 to 125,000 in 2021, and 137,000 in 2022. That has more than offset a slump in freight to and from Britain, which fell from 104,000 units in 2019 to 65,000 in 2021 and 63,500 last year.

The surge in continental traffic has created more than 200 new jobs around Rosslare port – which is operated by the state-owned Irish Rail – and boosted the entire region, Carr said. “And the port is the engine driver for the south-east,” he added.

Investment in and around Rosslare is surging. The port itself has launched an ambitious expansion and overhaul programme – including new access roads, deepening the harbour, automation, digitalisation, and offshore wind energy – whose cost will exceed €400m, by far the biggest in its history.

Eamonn Hore, the deputy chief executive of Wexford county council, said a similar sum was being spent on district infrastructure, including a motorway extension that will link Rosslare directly to the Irish capital and Belfast.

“There’s an economic boom under way in the south-east,” Hore said. “A lot of new businesses, particularly technology companies, have started moving in. And Brexit is definitely a driver, an accelerator, in that process.”

Nolan Transport, a family-owned business, recently opened a 150,000 cubic metre warehouse and logistics facility outside the port, a €12m investment. “Brexit caused huge disruption for us, but our European business is now flourishing,” said Noel Nolan, a managing director. 

The new warehouse has increased the company’s capacity from 5,000 pallets to 22,000 pallets. It plans to build another four, and expects to fill at least half of them with goods from the UK. “Customs brings cost and delay,” said Nolan. “We feel we can offer a one-stop solution.”

It now makes sense for many businesses to sidestep what used to be Ireland’s natural trading partner, he said: “We used to source all the parts for our trucks in the UK, now we do it from Italy and Holland. We’ve learned to live with the extra day of transit.”

Cherbourg, too, is expanding and upgrading both passenger and freight facilities. A new rail freight link is scheduled to open next year with Bayonne in south-west France, boosting traffic transiting between Spain, Portugal and Ireland via the Normandy port by an estimated 20,000 units a year.

The port is also increasingly busy building and assembling turbines for offshore windfarms, three of which are under way off the coast of north-west France. Irish windpower engineers were in Cherbourg last year to explore possibilities for cooperation.

And there is a determined effort, in both southern Ireland and northern France, to boost tourism, cultural and education links between the regions. The ties, noted Hore, who was visiting Cherbourg last week for an event on the WB Yeats ferry hosted by Tourism Ireland, are historical.

The Normans first landed on the south-west Wexford coast 850 years ago, at the request of Dermot MacMurrough, the deposed King of Leinster, who enlisted their support in reconquering his realm, Hore said.

“They never really left,” he said, “and they had a really profound impact on everything, from our architecture to our agriculture. Even today more than a third of surnames in County Wexford are of Norman origin.”

The boom in traffic has spurred authorities in both countries to reinforce ties further. A season of cultural events this spring and summer will see performances, gigs and events by Norman writers, artists and musicians in Dublin, and by Irish artists, writers and musicians in Normandy.

Cherbourg town hall and its partners are also organising an English public-speaking contest for schools in and around Cherbourg, a French oratory competition for schools in Ireland, and a series of cultural events around the Fastnet sailing race.

“It’s important for young people in particular to foster links with Ireland,” said Valérie Isoird from Cherbourg town hall. “Since Brexit, for example, school exchanges with the UK have become really difficult – children need an individual passport, and those from non-EU families need a visa. Several classes had to give up.”

Isoird said Cherbourg and its region were working on long-term partnerships with education authorities in southern Ireland. “Mobility is precious, and experience of other cultures enriching,” she said. “For us, as far as England is concerned, Brexit has thrown up a barrier. Ireland is now the natural choice.”

Tourism is growing too. Julien Bougon, deputy head of tourism for the Cotentin peninsula on which Cherbourg sits, said his focus was on building “slow tourism”: attracting Irish visitors who would stay longer in the area for its wild scenery, historic ports and fine food, rather than barrelling down south. 

Monica MacLaverty of Tourism Ireland said roughly 550,000 French holidaymakers a year already represented Ireland’s fourth largest market. “And ferry passengers are valuable,” she said. “They bring their car, travel around, stay longer.”

Off the ferry, on the Quai de Caligny overlooking Cherbourg’s marina, Etienne Lebastard, who runs the Comptoir Irlandais store selling all things Irish – from sweaters and soda bread to whiskey and Celtic jewellery – said he sensed a growing interest.

“This shop has been here for more than 20 years,” he said. “Brexit seems to have been good for Ireland and France. For the UK? I’m not so sure.”


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