France’s Brittany Ferries in dire straits due to double Brexit/COVID whammy

"Since 17 March, the company has been in resistance mode and has lost 50% of its turnover in 2020," Brittany Ferries Chairman Jean-Marc Roué explained. [Brittany Ferries]

After Brexit and the global pandemic, a new variant of the coronavirus ravaging the UK has dealt a fresh blow to the emblematic French shipping company Brittany Ferries, which now hopes for help from the French government. EURACTIV France reports.

Faced with the uncontrolled spread of the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a total lockdown in the UK on Monday evening. This means the British will have to respect a strict lockdown until mid-February – enough to plunge the Breton shipping company even further into crisis.

Since Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, Brittany Ferries has lost nearly “€115 million in pound-to-euro rates alone”, the company’s chairman, Jean-Marc Roué, told a press conference.

The fate of the Breton company, whose head office is based in Roscoff, has always depended on Franco-British relations. In fact, it was after the UK’s entry into the common European market in 1973 that the company came into being.

After World War Two, the French region of Brittany became the open-air laboratory of production-oriented agriculture and Brittany Ferries has been responsible for exporting Breton agricultural products across the Channel. The very first cargo ship in its fleet was named “Kersinel”, after a Finisterian hamlet in Western Brittany famous for its cauliflowers.

The company quickly expanded its range of services, carrying both vegetable products and passengers by the end of the 1970s. Its fleet continued to grow each year and nowadays it boasts twelve ships linking France to England, Ireland, and Spain.

The dark year of 2020

However, Brittany Ferries’ good days seem to be over. In addition to the doubts and uncertainties surrounding Brexit, the coronavirus crisis that shook the world last spring has added to the doubts and uncertainties, putting a brake on trade.

“Since 17 March, the company has been in resistance mode and has lost 50% of its turnover in 2020,” Roué explained. Of the 2.5 million or so regular passengers, Brittany Ferries only welcomed 700,000 that year.

“We benefit from the state-guaranteed loan that we haven’t entirely used up. It has allowed us to avoid defaulting on our payments. The state-guaranteed loan is a debt, and we have to repay it,” the company’s chairman added.

This is hardly the first storm the shipping company has had to weather. As early as the 1970s, it lost two ships that ran aground in the port of Saint-Malo after facing engine problems. Then local fishermen blocked the entrance of its Coronouaille ship during its maiden voyage in the port of Roscoff.

Still, the year 2020 marked “the worst crisis in its history”, according to its leaders. And the last-minute UK-EU trade agreement has not alleviated their concerns.

“We can hardly jump for joy because we are in a double crisis, that of COVID-19 and Brexit,” Roué told regional daily Ouest-France on Christmas day.

The Brittany Ferries boss hopes to maintain his position or even increase the frequency of connections thanks to a contract signed with the UK’s transport ministry, but he is also expecting efforts from the French government.

When French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie visited the port of Ouistreham (Calvados) on Tuesday (5 January), the chairman stressed the importance of a “recovery plan in line with the needs” of the cross-Channel maritime players.

But the needs are as vast as the issues at stake. Brittany Ferries is today the leading employer of French seafarers.

As many as 6,800 indirect and related jobs depend on the company, particularly in Brittany. While the majority of passengers come from England – 87% in 2019 – more than one in two stationary employees (excluding seagoing personnel) come from France.

Ireland seeks its own ‘landbridge’ to continental EU

Ireland has ramped up direct shipping routes to mainland Europe since the end of the Brexit transition period, seeking new passages to the EU bypassing freight jams feared at UK borders.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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