Europe prepares for a chaotic Brexit

European leaders are increasingly worried Britain will leave the EU without a deal in place.
European leaders are increasingly worried Britain will leave the EU without a deal in place.

One by one, European Union nations are spending millions, hiring thousands of workers and issuing emergency decrees to cope with the increasingly likely possibility that Britain will leave the bloc on March 29 without a plan.

A no-deal Brexit could shake up the rest of the continent in ways that many Europeans haven't yet fathomed, from snarled air traffic to paralysed ports and millions of workers in legal limbo.

France is spending 50 million euros ($A79 million) to beef up security at airports and the Eurotunnel, and hiring hundreds of extra customs officers.

Portugal is opening special airport lanes for British travellers, the nation's main source of tourists.

The Netherlands is scouring for qualified veterinarians to carry out new checks on live imports. Germany is fast-tracking a debate on solving bureaucratic problems if there is no Brexit deal.

Governments from Europe's Atlantic Coast to the Black Sea are preparing rules for British citizens to live and work in their countries once they no longer enjoy EU residency rights - and hoping that Britain is doing the same for their citizens.

Britain, which would face by far the biggest disruption, has devoted thousands of civil servants and several billion pounds on measures to mitigate the worst effect - although officials can only speculate about what will actually happen on March 30 if Brexit happens without a deal.

After the British parliament overwhelmingly rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit divorce deal this week, other governments are bracing for chaos, too.

"We strongly believe" Britain will leave with no exit deal, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on Thursday, unveiling a raft of emergency measures to cope with that prospect.

"Under these conditions, our responsibility ... is to ensure that our country is ready, that the interests of our citizens are preserved and defended."

The French government will build new infrastructure and hire new staff at airports and ports - and the tunnel beneath the English Channel.

The company that operates the Eurotunnel says a quarter of all UK-EU trade passes through the tunnel, which could be a major chokepoint in a no-deal Brexit.

France's emergency decrees will temporarily let British companies transport goods in France, and allow certain British insurance and other financial activities to continue in France despite Britain's loss of access to the EU financial market.

The exceptional transfer of military equipment between the two countries will also be allowed.

In Berlin, German lawmakers debated a bill on Thursday that aims to solve bureaucratic issues arising from Brexit.

"We want to keep the damage - and there will certainly be damage from Britain's departure - as small as possible," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Dutch authorities say they are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. The customs service is hiring some 900 new staff. The food and animal welfare authority is scouring southern and eastern Europe for qualified vets to carry out checks on live imports.

In Britain, the government announced on Thursday it's putting military reservists on standby for permanent service in the event the country leaves without a divorce deal.

Many businesses are taking things into their own hands, and stockpiling goods.

Australian Associated Press