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Post-Brexit Channel Tunnel sovereignty and safety solutions recommended

23 February 2021

The European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons has made a series of recommendations on the way safety rules are set for the Channel Tunnel.

The recommendations are contained in a new Committee report, Brexit: The future operation of the Channel Tunnel Fixed Link.

The ‘Fixed Link’ is the official name for the infrastructure made up of the Channel Tunnel and the two terminals for it at Folkstone in the UK and Coquelles in France.

In July 2020, the European Commission published proposals outlining how the Channel Tunnel should operate at the end of the post-Brexit transition period. These were that: (1) EU rail safety law should continue to apply on the UK-side of the Tunnel; and (2) the European Court of Justice should be the final arbiter of any dispute between the UK and France. In response, the Government rejected these proposals. The Committee endorsed this Government stance and, in today’s report, makes a number of recommendations concerning the future operation of the Channel Tunnel.

The Committee’s recommendations – set out in more detail below - are deemed necessary because of the departure of the UK from the EU and the current absence of a long-term agreement between France and the UK on the way safety regulations in the Tunnel are governed.

The recommendations stem from the likelihood that any future adjustments to safety rules from the French side could be proposed under EU law – which no longer applies in the UK. It is also necessary for any changes to be safe, transparent and legally sound for the public, stakeholders and Parliament. To explain the recommendations, some context is required.

The Tunnel and terminals are currently regulated through a combination of the Anglo-French arrangement first established to build the link – the 1986 Treaty of Canterbury – and, more recently, EU law. The UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement that came into force at the end of December 2020 did not cover the Channel Tunnel. Therefore, since the UK is no longer bound by EU law, the governance of the only surface transport connection linking the UK to mainland Europe has reverted to the terms of the Treaty of Canterbury.

However, the safety and governance issues arising from EU laws, which on the UK side have been retained in domestic law since the end of the transition period, are vital to the effective functioning of the Channel Tunnel. So far, only short-term extensions of the current arrangements arising from EU law - for example, for the safety permissions for trains to run on certain tracks - have been agreed.

Any failure to agree clear guidelines following Brexit could create uncertainty over safety and cause serious business continuity issues for the private concession holder currently running the tunnel (Getlink, formerly known as Eurotunnel) and the train operators.

Having reached the end of the Brexit transition period without a long-term agreement with France on the future operation of the Tunnel, the management of safety issues falls back to the French rail safety authority, the Établissement Public de Sécurité Ferroviaire, and the UK Office of Rail and Road, with each taking responsibility for their respective sides of the Tunnel. This fallback position appears to be very similar to the ‘bi-national approach’ advocated by the Government as a permanent solution for the future management of the safety issues at the Tunnel.


The Committee recommended that this bi-national approach be formalised and that new management structures be agreed to provide for joint working and the solving of disputes. These structures should be made clear to the public and stakeholders such as Getlink.

The Committee also recommended in its report that the Government commit to inform Parliament about any changes and update the Committee on a monthly basis on the progress of negotiations.

The Committee further recommended that the Government establish mechanisms for the UK to be given sufficient advance notice of any future EU proposals that cover the Tunnel and terminals. This would guard against the possibility of France, as an EU member, being required to implement EU rail safety standards which the UK may not wish to apply on the UK side and give time for negotiations.

Further information

Image: Nico Callens from Pixabay