The heads of key UK-France travel services, including Eurostar, have set out concerns about practical issues they could face with the implementation of two new EU electronic travel systems.
The concerns relate to the Entry/Exit System (EES) set to launch in the first half of 2022, and Etias, planned to be in place by the start of 2023.
Tim Reardon, head of EU Exit with the Dover Harbour Board, John Keefe, director of public affairs at Getlink and Gareth Williams, strategy director at Eurostar, spoke to a UK Lords Committee about the implications of the planned systems on Tuesday (November 2).
The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias) and the EES will affect visitors (not residents in the EU) with visa-free access to France and other Schengen countries. This includes travellers from the UK, US, Australia and 56 other countries.
Etias is a visa waiver that these people will in future need before travelling to countries that fall under the Etias scheme, which includes France.
It is similar to the US ESTA system, with applications being completed online and costing €7. It is valid for three years. The European Commission has stated that 95% of applications will be approved within minutes.
The Entry/Exit-System (EES), meanwhile, will verify the details of non-EU citizens entering and exiting the Schengen area, including name and passport details, entry and exit dates, a photograph and fingerprints, and will replace the need for a passport stamp.
It is essentially an electronic passport check.
The EU has set a target date of having the systems in place by May, 2022, but it is thought it may be delayed beyond this date.
Mr Williams of Eurostar, speaking to the the Justice and Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday, said that preparations for the systems, in particular EES, will pose logistical problems for travel companies.
“This is coming at us fast in a very under-developed way, and whatever the timing is, we don’t currently see a practical solution,” he said.
Space for EES kiosks an issue
Mr Williams said one huge issue for Eurostar will be space. Special kiosks will need to be set up at train stations across Europe to manage the verification of passengers in line with the EES system.
Mr Williams said that the impact will “fall disproportionately at St Pancras in London, because that is where the predominant number of first-time entry to the Schengen area happens”.
St Pancras is linked to the Gare du Nord train station in Paris via the Channel Tunnel.
The authorisation and check will be only for visitors who have the right to enter the Schengen zone without the need for a visa, meaning British citizens, among others.
EU citizens and residents of the EU will not need to get Etias approval or go through EES checks to enter the Schengen area when the systems are launched, and neither will those holding temporary long-stay visas.
Etias approval will remain valid for three years. However, it is planned that travellers with this will still need to pass through the EES check every time they enter and exit the Schengen area.
The first time a person is verified by the EES check will take the longest, with Mr Williams saying it could take on average 92 seconds per passenger. Subsequent checks of the same passenger will take on average 50 seconds, he said..
He estimated that at the peak of August, 80% of passengers taking the Eurostar will be required to go through the EES system.
“We have an extreme space challenge,” he said.
“The [verification] is intended to be done at the border line itself under supervision,” he said.
He added that based on “crude” estimates, “at a minimum we would require over 30 [EES] kiosks, and an area about the size of the entire area in front of our current check-in position at St Pancras...to handle the EES system”.
John Keefe, the director of public affairs at Getlink, the company that manages and operates the infrastructure of the Channel Tunnel and operates the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle train service, said that from the Eurotunnel perspective, the creation of new EES kiosks could lead to traffic being backed up onto the motorway.
“The more that’s done at the point of maximum congestion, the more congestion there will be,” he added.
You cannot do biometric checks on car passengers
Mr Reardon, the company secretary and head of EU Exit for the Dover Harbour Board, said a major issue with EES is that it is not yet possible to do biometric checks on car passengers, such as those who will take the ferry between the UK and France.
“EES is at heart, a new biometric entry and exit control targeted at non-European nationals, so that in addition to carrying a passport and in place of the current process – where the French passport officer will look at you and look at your passport and check that they match and if they do will let you in or let you out – there will be an automatic biometric process,” he said.
“However there is no way yet of doing a biometric control on a vehicle, without getting people out of the vehicle.”
“There is no such thing as an e-gate for a car or for a group. There is a mis-match between the concept on which biometric controls as they exist now have operated, and the way traffic moves in our context.
He said getting passengers out of vehicles while attempting to board a ferry was “fundamentally unsafe”.
Regarding Etias, which is prior-authorisation, applied for online, to come into the Schengen area for a visit, he said he hopes that the application process will be included as part of ferry operators’ booking processes.
“We expect in our context it will be built into our ferry operators’ booking systems, so that in order to be able to make a booking, or certainly in order to be able to check-in, you will need to have obtained your Etias permission first,” he said.
What communication has there been between the UK and France on the matter?
Mr Reardon of Getlink said that conversations between relevant UK and French authorities “are a bit sketchy at the moment, and they are few and far between”.
He said he would “very much appreciate” it if he could be involved in the planning process.
Mr Williams, for his part, said: “We are engaged with the French authorities in trying to understand and model the systems.”
However, he added that it is very difficult “to get accurate information about the processes and timings on this”.
How many people will be affected?
Mr Keefe of Getlink said that processing the number of people who will need to be verified through EES will be “an impossible task in the space we have available”.
“On a peak summer’s day, we would be carrying about 600 cars per hour, approximately 2,400-2,500 passengers,” he said.
“About 65-70% will need EES the first time round. So we’ll be looking at 1,600 or 1,700 people per hour to be processed the first time.”
He added that they estimate they would have to process around seven million people in the first year after the systems are brought in, and around 3.5 million in the second year.
Mr Williams of Eurotunnel said: “If I take a peak hour during August, I have just over 1,800 passengers going through in that hour. About 1,500 of those would be required to go through the EES system, of whom about 830 we estimate will be first-time travellers.”
Mr Reardon of the Dover Harbour Board, said that on a normal Saturday at the start of October half-term around 40,000 passengers travel through the port. He expects the majority of them to be non-Europeans travelling into the Schengen area, requiring an Etias and EES verification.
He said figures could reach up to 120,000 on busy summer days.
Why are these systems being implemented?
The European Commission introduced the idea of an Etias in April 2016 and adopted the proposal in November of the same year.
The European Commission says Etias, and by consequence EES too, will: “Help to identify any possible security concerns prior to [a person’s] travel to the Schengen area, thus contributing to more efficient management of the EU’s external borders and improved internal security.”
The combined systems will also create a database of non-resident, non-EU visitors who are in the Schengen area, giving more information to security services.
Etias and EES are not directly related to Brexit other than the fact they apply to the UK due to it leaving the EU. It will apply to other countries as well and was under discussion before the 2016 EU referendum.
The systems are comparable to the requirements for EU citizens, and others not requiring full visas, to visit the USA.
You can watch the Justice and Home Affairs Committee’s full discussion on Etias and EES at this link.