Alarm grows over new digital checks at UK/France borders from autumn

Ports, travel operators and airlines are calling for urgent action. Travel operator group Abta says France is not opting for a pre-registration app for EES

The port of Dover authorities have referred to potentially disastrous risks
Published Last updated

Article published online February 21

A recent investigation by British MPs into the EU’s forthcoming EES digital border checks has revealed widespread concern among travel bodies and tour operators, including Dover Port and Getlink and UK airlines and coach firms.

Many are urging the EU to make good on promises of a pre-registration app for the checks and all are calling for more UK-EU cooperation ahead of the planned autumn start.

British travel operators’ body Abta, however, understands France is not opting to use such an app.

Read more: Plans to ease launch of EU En-try/Exit system with app pre-registration

There are fears, in particular, of delays at St Pancras, Dover and Folkestone, where French border checks are done on UK soil, known as ‘juxtaposed controls’.

The EES involves the digitised logging of data on travel in and out of the Schengen area by non-EU citizens. French residency card and visa holders will be exempt but might be caught up in queues.

EES will automate the checking of non-EU citizens compliance with the EU’s 90/180-days rule (ie. not spending more than 90 days in any 180-day period in the Schengen area without a national visa) among other issues.

Concerns especially revolve around the launch when all users must have photographs taken and fingerprints scanned. This data can then be stored for three years.

Read more: Has a date now been set for launch of the EU’s new Entry/Exist system?

See below for some of the key comments submitted to MPs in the UK.

Dover port: ‘Potential disaster looms’

Dover Port in its submission referred to an “existential risk facing critical supply chains, businesses, communities, and the tourism economy of nations on both sides of the Channel from the current lack of appropriate regime for the introduction of EES”.

An existential risk refers to a disaster that will cause complete destruction.

It said it has been in discussion with the UK, France and the EU for four years to seek solutions and there has been greater progress in the last year since the Home Office took ‘ownership’ of the issue. However, “an approved acceptable solution eludes us today”.

It said there are “severe implications” due to the juxtaposed controls.

As currently planned, “EES will present huge challenges for French border operations within the Port of Dover”, the port authorities said. “As a consequence there will be serious and lasting negative impacts on communities, businesses, and authorities within the UK and in France and wider Europe”.

The systems will not be capable of processing the current level of cars and coaches, which are already lower than before the pandemic, it added.

There are liable to be “continual tourist queues”, which would also disrupt freight.

“Severely constrained tourist flows to France would not only be detrimental to British families but would, as a result, impact the wider French economy.”

Additional measures will be needed to prevent the congestion at Dover, and “across Kent”, Dover port said, adding that it should be made possible for the EES process to be done remotely instead.

Otherwise, there will be risks to trade and ‘just-in-time’ supply chains serving both the UK and EU. The latter refers to arrangements where suppliers move goods just before they are needed, for example for fresh produce or for raw materials for factories that do not have capacity to hold large stockpiles.

It asked the MPs to request that France press for changes allowing EES registration at a site away from the port, or via an app.

Airlines UK: ‘Should be beneficial in the long-term’

Airlines UK, representing British airlines, said EES “should be beneficial in the long term, making it quicker to enter the EU”.

It said it is welcome that the implementation date – which has now been put off three times – will be after the summer peak, however Airlines UK is concerned that there have not yet been enough chances to run tests.

However, it said that so far the requirements appear to be “unnecessarily laborious”, raising concerns as to whether it will be possible for it to be implemented on time.

Passengers will have to be warned of what to expect, as there may be up to three minutes of registration time for ‘biometric’ data (photograph and fingerprints).

The impact is likely to be worse in small airports that experience seasonal spikes in passengers.

The UK government should help to make sure everyone is aware of the new system, as well as of Etias – an online pre-approval process for entry to the EU, set to start six months after EES.

Read more: What is the EU’s Etias visa-waiver scheme?

It is important the UK works constructively with the EU to ensure it goes as “seamlessly” as possible “without undue delays and disruption”.

The British Ports Association: ‘Border process could take time’

The ports association said the new borders process “could take time” and “any checks and stoppages at ports can quickly escalate into queues and congestion as unlike at airports almost all travellers are in a vehicle”.

In view of the juxtaposed controls at Dover, the UK should “seek assistance from the EU and France”.

The UK needs to look into any possible exemptions from procedures at Dover and elsewhere, including remote submissions, apps and ‘grace periods’.

In other ports there could also be knock-on effects from queues on the French side on arrival.

These issues have been known for some time, but the UK government has “not necessarily prioritised the subject” and “needs to do so urgently, now,” it said.

In view of the fact the UK plans to introduce its own version of Etias (called ETA) by the end of the year, it needs to work with the EU to ensure all systems are user-friendly and consistent.

Getlink (Channel Tunnel): ‘Increase in processing time’

The EES app proposed by the European Commission must be developed quickly so it can be tested. It is expected to enable entry of some personal details and a photograph, although not fingerprints.

A solution needs to be found for Dover, which lacks space to construct registration booths. Queues at the port could also cause delays getting to the tunnel.

The UK will need to run an awareness campaign about pre-registration with the app, and will need to ensure that EES/Etias do not “clash” with ETA.

Getlink is adapting the terminals at Folkestone and Coquelles, to deal with EES. Kiosks will be tested over the summer. It is investing over €80million and intends that it will allow “seamless” movement of goods and people.

The sites with juxtaposed controls are most at risk of delays on the UK side.

Communication between the Home Office and France and the EU will be essential, to ensure appropriate staffing is in place.

Future improvements could include technology to allow a capture of a person’s facial image to replace their passport.

Coach operators: ‘Threat to tourism’

A “significant” increase in processing time for non-EU passengers passing through to the EU is likely.

“Excessive” delays at Dover and Folkestone are a “threat to the future of international coach tourism if border resources do not match passenger numbers, particularly at peak times”.

This is especially likely to affect small and medium-sized coach firms, which are the majority.

EES will also bring much more stringent monitoring of how much time coach drivers spend in the EU, many of whom make repeated short trips to the continent. “Some flexibility” on the 90/180-days rule for them would be welcome.

Processing everyone on a coach could take 70 minutes, but if there are at least six booths for coaches this could be reduced to 12.

So far, the EU appears “reluctant” to allow remote processing away from the main port of Dover, whereas even doing so half a mile away would help install sufficient kiosks.

“The EU’s promise of an app “must be fulfilled”. It is also important for France to ‘adopt’ the use of the app.

Abta – tour operators

Abta said: “It must be noted that the application of EES to the UK and its citizens is a consequence of its status as a third country post-Brexit and the absence of a negotiated agreement to exempt each other’s citizens from new electronic border systems introduced by both sides.”

It said EES was adopted in 2017, before Brexit negotiations began, and the Schengen borders code dated back to 2006 (the code sets out that more traveller details can be requested from non-EU citizens as compared to EU citizens, and they are subject to the 90/180-days rule).

The EU’s borders systems do not seem sufficiently adapted to the UK having become a ‘third country’ to the EU, and appear ill-prepared to deal with the volume of cross-Channel traffic.

There is little information about a possible app for some advanced data collection and Abta understands each EU state will have to decide whether to adopt the use of it.

It said: “Our latest understanding is that the French government has decided not to take up this technological solution, which is a concern as it will hinder efforts to facilitate smoother travel at the juxtaposed borders.”

However, even this app could not resolve all problems with longer border processing times, especially in the initial phase as EU rules necessitate certain physical checks at the border, notably fingerprints.

Political efforts must be made to find practical solutions with regard to the UK’s unique situation and Abta hopes the goodwill fostered by the King’s visit and recent Windsor Agreement (regarding Northern Ireland) will help.

There could perhaps be future negotiations with a view to abolishing all of these new requirements in both directions via sharing of intelligence and security databases.

There are concerns in particular about whether there is enough space for EES checks on UK soil at the juxtaposed controls.

Less disruption is expected at airports, compared to ports.

There is still no precise timetable and Abta would have wished for one year’s notice of the start date.

It notes that there will be a six-month transition period in which border guards will continue to manually verify adherence to the 90/180-day rule, with further potential for delays.

The Port of Dover and French border authorities have put in place additional frontier supervisors and a coach processing facility, in a bid to avoid repeats of the delays experienced during Easter 2023. However, ports continue to grapple with capacity constraints.

EES poses particular issues for cruise ships with regard to third-country passengers on board who may be repeatedly leaving and re-entering the Schengen area and will be subject to multiple checks on getting off and on the ship.

Ryanair: ‘Project has been poorly managed’

Ryanair said that “this whole project has been delayed multiple times and has been poorly managed”.

It added it had not yet been possible to properly test changes to its systems due to delays and some of the requirements are still not clear.

This will make meeting the requirements “very difficult” whereas “normally one would expect such a development introducing electronic systems to improve, rather than detract from efficiency”.

Related articles

EES: Eurostar wants backup plan in case of chaos

Dover border checks may cause ‘alarming’ 14-hour delays, MPs told