UK/France border plans 'completely unsatisfactory' ministers told

Travel operators struggling to plan amid uncertainty over launch date of the EU’s Entry/Exit System (EES) and readiness of ‘pre-registration’ app

Three-way spilt image of Uk border control, EU sign and house of commons committee meeting
Ministers were asked how UK travel operators can plan for the EES launch “when they don’t know what it will look like or when it will start?”
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UK government ministers overseeing the British side of the EU’s new digital border checks have been told that plans for its autumn rollout were “completely unsatisfactory”.

The Entry/Exit System (EES) will introduce digital checks at the Schengen area’s borders from autumn 2024. However, many of its specifics are still unclear and ill-defined while reports of potential border delays have left many alarmed.

In a meeting on May 1, the UK’s House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, heard evidence from junior transport minister Guy Opperman and borders and migration minister Tom Pursglove from the Home Office.

Committee chairman Sir William Cash asked the ministers why the scheme was in such an apparently vague state after seven years of preparation.

“How do you expect travel operators in the UK to plan for the launch of the EES when they don’t know what it will look like or when it will start?” asked Sir William.

He also evoked the need for an EES app to be available before the start of the scheme in October to avoid Kent being “turned into a car park” by tailbacks from the port of Dover. The app is meant to help collect some traveller information before they arrive at border controls.

Meanwhile, eurosceptic MP David Jones (Conservative, Clwyd West), said: “It is clear… that you are constantly waiting for more information from the EU and having to press for that. 

“But it is very difficult for operators to operate in conditions in which there is information still outstanding in respect of a scheme that is going to go live, it would appear, as soon as October of this year. It is completely unsatisfactory, from their point of view.”

In addition, the committee asked the ministers to address:

  • The state of the preparations for an autumn rollout of the EES

  • The traffic implications in Kent for people waiting to cross at Dover

  • What the EES would mean for travellers

  • The back-up plan if the scheme results in catastrophic delays

  • The introduction of an app to help ease the processing time

  • The effectiveness of the UK’s liaison with French and European authorities

Ministers respond to EES concerns

The ministers sought to reassure the committee, explaining that while the rollout of the system was “very complex”, the situation was “improving” on several fronts.

“Clearly, any change of any nature is new to people,” said Mr Opperman. “But there are many very good reasons why greater border security should be lauded and supported, with the burdens that go with that.”

The ministers went on to address several of the committee’s concerns in particular, however remained vague on certain aspects of the EES that are still to be developed.

The launch date and rollout

“We are very much working on a basis of this policy going live on October 6, and it is important that we plan for that eventuality,” said Mr Pursglove. “We are expecting to hear definitively from the EU that go-live arrangement in the summer.”

He added: “Where there is a risk of excessive delays within that first six months, the publicly stated position [by the EU] is that there will be precautionary measures available to invoke in those situations.”

Precisely what these measures involve has yet to be agreed with the European authorities, said Mr Pursglove, but he said they aimed at “a soft launch.”

“What that means in reality is that, if one got to a situation where there were a certain level of 

queues or delays, the provisions of the precautionary flexibility measures allow for much greater freedom of passage of vehicles, coaches, HGVs and cars.”

French airports body UAF, previously stated they had been told November 6, was the planned date. The EU, meanwhile, has only referred to ‘the autumn’ officially.

The EES app

An app being developed by the EU to allow travellers to pre-register for the EES “will take time,” said Mr Opperman, adding that it is likely to be available before October 6 but not before August.

However, the ministers downplayed the importance of the app, reminding the committee that all passengers would still need to have their fingerprints taken electronically, irrespective of pre-registration.

“Anyone who has ever tried to experience government apps over the last 14 years will know 

that they do not always work beautifully,” said Mr Opperman. “It would help. But having that is not a panacea.”

The European Commission previously told The Connexion it aims for its app to be ready by the launch but individual states will be free to ‘adopt’ its use or not. 

Contrary to previous reports from Abta, the ministers said they understand the French authorities are favourable towards the app, but added that France had other priorities.

“There is, understandably and for good reason, a big focus on the Olympics,” said Mr Pursglove. “But my understanding is that the French government recognise our interest 

in the app and, effectively, their own interest in getting the app delivered as quickly as possible.”

French airports group UAF has, however, cast doubt on how effective the app will be in reducing queues, saying they understand it will be limited in the kinds of data it can collect. It will not be a “miracle solution,” said its general delegate Nicolas Paulissen, at a recent meeting.

Frontex, the European border agency, referring to a ‘Quick Border Application’ that it states it is working on for EES, has called for tech companies with good ideas on pre-registration solutions to participate in an ‘Industry Day’ seminar on the subject on May 29.

Assuming this refers to the same app as announced by the commission, this would suggest it is still in the early stages of development.

The traffic situation in Dover

The ministers also spoke of the significant investment and progress made at the Port of Dover towards preempting traffic tailbacks due to delays processing passengers when the EES is introduced.

“The estimation by the Port of Dover is that with the soft launch and the precautionary measures, they will be able to handle the volumes that they are dealing with,” said Mr Opperman.

In particular, he called the new coach-processing facility in the western docks “game changing.”

However, he acknowledged that the expansion of Dover’s facilities would take two to three years to be completed.

“Dover will be totally transformed,” he said. “Some would argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that some of this investment should have been made five, 10 or 15 years ago.”

Will fares go up due to EES?

In April, The Telegraph reported that the significant outlay of ferry ports due to the requirements of the EES would result in higher ticket prices.

“I cannot answer for the individual organisations as to whether they will put fares,” said Mr Opperman. “That is obviously a matter for them. However, I think it will also be determined by things such as throughput, volume, numbers of people, how this beds in and the degree to which custom continues on the present levels.”