France slow to comment on use of new EES border check app

The phone app - intended to speed up procedures by collecting passenger information ahead of time - is optional for EU countries

Information such as passport data and purpose of stay will soon need to be collected under the new EES controls on non-EU visitors coming to the Schengen area
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The EU’s new digital border controls are set to start in a few months, yet it is still not known whether a pre-registration app will be ready in time to ease expected queues – and even exactly when the new checks will start.

The European Commission said the Entry/Exit System (EES) will be ready to launch operations by autumn and the date will be shown at “well in time”. 

The phone app, which is meant to help speed up procedures by collecting some passenger information before travellers arrive at the EU’s external borders, is still in development and France has yet to confirm if it will make use of it. Countries opt into its use.

The Commission told us it will be “made available for the Schengen countries as from the EES start of operations”. However, UK ministers recently cast doubt on its readiness at a meeting of the UK House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee.

EES, which has been planned since April 2016, will collect entry and exit dates for non-EU visitors to the Schengen area, as well as their passport data – name, date of birth – and information such as purpose of stay, accommodation and sufficient means. They will have, on first entry or exit, a photograph and fingerprint scan taken, which will be kept in a database for three years. 

Read more: EES border checks: why may fingerprints need to be taken twice?

An app is being developed by the EU borders agency Frontex, but individual states will be able to decide whether or not to adopt it, the Commission has said.

UK borders and migration minister Tom Pursglove told MPs that once Frontex provides the basic app, individual states will be able to adapt it to their needs.

Going live in October is ‘optimistic’

Frontex advertised an ‘industry day’ on May 29, saying it is testing a pilot version of this ‘Quick Border Application’. 

It invited IT experts to join it to give ideas in areas such as facial image capture, and self-service solutions for taking fingerprints and for reading and scanning documents – suggesting that the app is far from finished.

Earlier this year, airport chiefs expressed concerns that it might be limited in what data it can collect, and thus in its usefulness in reducing the expected longer queues.

Junior transport minister Guy Opperman told MPs the app could “make a tremendous difference”, but having it ready to go live in October appeared “optimistic”. 

“However, as soon as we have it and the digital capability to test it, everybody will be keen to do that,” he said.

Read more: Will EES be applied to those entering France from another EU country?

MP Greg Smith said: “Nobody in industries that are going to be affected by this is expecting the app to be ready to go and to be useful for the launch of EES in any way, shape or form.”

Mr Pursglove said the French government was currently focusing on the Olympics. “But my understanding is that they recognise our interest in the app and, effectively, their interest in getting it delivered as quickly as possible.” 

Ministers had also heard that the EU plans a six-month “soft launch”, involving “precautionary flexibility measures”. Further details on this are not yet available.