The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

01 Aug 2022

Relationship with the EU

The queues of people trying to access the continent via Dover are emblematic of the change in the status of the UK/EU border. And the challenges are going to grow. Harder borders can be managed more efficiently but it will take significant adjustment and collaboration on both sides to make it so.  

It is fair to say there is a certain sense of national pride in the British ability to queue well. Turning it into a national pastime was hardly on the list of Brexit objectives. And yet the queues upon queues of vehicles waiting to cross the Channel last week were the worst in recent memory. There is nothing like the heart-sinking realisation that you simply won’t make it aboard in time to bring home the reality of a border to those of us who’ve become accustomed to easy travel.  

Travel between Britain and the EU is becoming more complicated than it used to be – the border is a harder one. And this is not just an abstract concept. Juxtaposed controls operate at the channel, meaning that you get permission to enter France before you’ve stepped foot off England, and vice versa. Permission to enter the EU is given by French border guards in Dover. EU border guards are slowly moving towards a system to make sure visitors do not exceed the allotted maximum of 90 days in a 180 day period allowed for UK citizens to visit the Schengen zone. This requires entry and exit checks. There are at present no e-gates that can stamp passports or calculate stay. 

Whilst it takes two sides of a border to make a border easier to cross, it only takes those operating on one side of a border to make it hard. And this can happen by omission as well as by intention. The lack of border guards to process passengers can dramatically slow things down, as can inadequate infrastructure and information for managing the sheer volume of them. Border management requires long-term and multifaceted strategy, preparation, investment and inter-agency coordination. 

The Dover queues in July were a mere taster of what is to come if we don’t sit down and work out a plan with the EU on passenger and customs facilitations in the longer term. The slight increase in transaction times already experienced at French passport controls as they have moved towards passport stamping and comprehensive passport swipes is set to get even longer.  

The EU Smart Borders Programme will introduce the new Entry/Exit System (EES) and European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) next year for all ‘third country’ visitors. This includes British travellers. In order to replace passport stamping, British passengers will have to register their biometrics (face and fingerprints) and complete an on-line application form before they will be allowed to enter the EU. Biometrics will be verified at each entry and exit from the Schengen zone (EES) to give the EU greater control over third country visitors. Obstacles and delays to movement in the reverse direction will get worse too, as the UK government rolls out its own Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme for EU visitors, who will also need to apply for permission before they travel. 

Both of these initiatives involve biometric registration and recognition, to a greater or lesser extent. Passengers will need to have obtained a ‘digital permission’ to board trains and ferries in both directions, or face being denied boarding altogether. There have been no plans published so far to introduce technology and automation in Dover or Calais to facilitate this for vehicle traffic.  

As for Customs, the government has introduced a new deadline of 31 December 2023 to implement all the provisions of the Border Operating Model, which is equally (if not more) challenging. Traders who were previously able to ‘roll off’ ferries at the foot of the cliffs and on to UK motorways will be required to submit more paperwork; and may well be diverted to Border Inspection Points inland for further inspection. 

All in all, Brexit is far from ‘done’ in terms of UK/EU borders. The UK government’s 2025 Border Strategy is in a phase of trials and consultations before full roll out. For example, the Cabinet Office is leading on establishing an ‘eco-system of trust’ between government agencies and a complex supplier network.  And the Home Office has established a ‘Border Vision Advisory Group’ to develop technical solutions with industry.  

Yet it is not possible to unilaterally make cross-border movement smoother. There is no evidence that any of these UK government programmes or initiatives will be run concurrently with the French government, or with the wider EU. In which case there is a danger of misalignment on either side of the border, which could see queues on both sides becoming the new normal. 

Back in 2020, we pointed to the need for partnership, cooperation and preparation by UK authorities to minimise friction on the Irish Sea border under the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The same principles hold true in this case. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, ‘taking back control of borders’ is a necessarily an exercise in collaboration. Without that, the queues will only grow – as will the economic disbenefit to both sides, not to mention the stress levels of millions of hapless holidaymakers. 

By Professor Katy Hayward (Centre for International Borders Research, Queen’s University Belfast), Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, and Tony Smith CBE, chairman of the International Border Management and Technologies Association and former Director General, UK Border Force, and Director of Ports of Entry in both the UK and Canada.

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