New post-Brexit travel systems are about to kick in. The UK is not prepared

Proposed border checks raise ethical, legal and practical challenges for those visiting the continent

November 24, 2021
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Travel to EU countries during the last few months has been described as “a real faff”—and worse. The public, used until recently to crossing those borders smoothly and with the minimum of preparation and paperwork, will be expecting faff-free journeys post-Covid. The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which I chair, fears this will not be so, and we are urging the government to take active steps to prevent this.

Having left the EU means that we are now subject to the EU’s border controls: the same controls as every other “third country.” Some changes had already been in play (limits on the duration of stay, rules on passport validity), but the EU is now preparing to launch two new border systems. They will impose further checks, including on UK citizens.

And it will affect plenty of them. In 2019, pre-Covid, there were almost 67m visits to the EU from the UK, for leisure and business. Sometime in 2022 (we do not know when), we will be facing new disruption to travel. But instead of engaging, our government’s policy seems to be to “wait and see.”

The new European Entry/Exit System (EES) will use biometrics at the border to record people entering and leaving. Air travellers will encounter this on arrival, but for millions in trains and cars, on ferries and travelling through the Tunnel, the checks will be on departure. As well as facial images, passengers will be required by EU law to submit fingerprints, meaning they will have to exit their vehicles. As transport operator Eurotunnel said, that would be unsafe because it would take place “in the middle of live traffic.” All this will be under the supervision of EU officials at the juxtaposed controls used now by UK and French authorities at Dover, Folkestone, St Pancras and the other Eurostar stations.

And all of these stations are tight for space. At St Pancras, the whole of the area currently used for queuing passengers will be needed. The entrance to the Channel Tunnel and the space to embark on the ferries are bounded by the cliffs and the sea, with the terminal infrastructure, not to speak of Dover and Folkestone themselves, filling the space. Speed is needed at the entry points: the slower the checks, the more congestion. The committee was told by the transport operators that, while lorry drivers (disciplined, though resigned) will take the correct route when they queue on the motorway, the public will likely look for other routes (understandably, under pressure from a carful of family and dogs anxious about their connection and needing a pit stop). Congestion builds rapidly, as people living in Kent know.

Add in the privacy implications of the checks to be made. The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) will be issuing authorisations to travellers who do not hold a visa to enter EU countries and Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein (but not Ireland). You don’t need a visa if your stay is shorter than 90 days. But very many holidaymakers and business travellers will need to go through the online process, with inevitable difficulties for those who cannot access the technology or are not adept at using it. They will have to submit— for a fee of €7—personal details, including current occupation and educational attainments. The system will assess whether you are a security, illegal immigration or high epidemic risk, with checks against EU and Interpol databases and algorithmic profiling.

It’s the profiling that particularly concerns the committee, both its automated and human elements. Profiling does not have an unblemished reputation for avoiding discrimination. (The Committee has been told “there’s no such thing as unbiased data.”) Who can use that data? Up to 5 per cent of applications are expected to be flagged by the algorithm for manual processing, with the outcome decided by human decisionmakers in the relevant country. Under what law? What safeguards will there be? How long will this take for the traveller who expects to be able to hop over to France at short notice? Can you re-apply? How can you appeal effectively when the appeal is in another country and you can’t go there?

There are more issues than this but, crucially, most UK citizens will not expect any of them to arise. The members of the committee are seasoned politicians who tend far more to a considered than an alarmist approach, but we have taken a robust line with the home secretary. In a letter published this week, we have highlighted to the Home Office that there are ethical, legal and logistical challenges, and that the UK is unprepared.

The home secretary told us that it is for the transport operators and the EU Commission to address our concerns. The operators have tried to work with the authorities, but in any event government intervention is needed if we are to be prepared.

There are many questions and potentially considerable problems, but so much scope for working with stakeholders and with the EU. Should we cease striving for information sharing, co-operation and engagement with the EU? The UK should be reaching out and getting stuck in. After all, UK citizens, on UK soil, will feel the impact.