Comment: New electronic border systems risk shocks

Lord Foster of Bath warns the electronic border systems being rolled out by the UK and EU require more preparation and communication to avoid disruption

Unless the EU and the UK Government pull out their respective fingers well before the autumn, many travellers from the UK to most of the EU and foreign travellers to the UK are in for a shock and potential travel disruption.

After many delays, the EU is preparing an October introduction of its new Entry/Exit System (EES) for foreign visitors, including UK citizens, to Schengen Area countries. And next year it will introduce its pre-travel authorisation scheme, the Electronic Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), similar to the US ESTA.

When the Lords’ Justice and Home Affairs Committee first looked at these schemes in 2021, we were concerned about the lack of public awareness and the possibility – not least because of the need for each passenger’s fingerprints to be taken – of delays at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International, at the Port of Dover, and at the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone where there are both UK and EU border controls.

Three years on there is still limited public awareness of what is about to happen. But thanks to huge efforts by the operators, the physical arrangements necessary are now largely in place. However, there is still no smartphone application to allow pre-registration for some parts of the EES process, although it’s likely to be ready soon.

Just as the EU introduces its schemes to enhance border security, the UK is introducing its own pre-travel authorisation scheme for people not requiring visas.

The Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) is being phased in and is already a requirement for short-stay visitors from the Gulf states, with the rest of the world and the EU to follow. It costs £10 and is valid for multiple journeys for up to two years.

In principle, the ETA is a sensible measure to fill a ‘gap’ in managing our borders whereby citizens of some countries use e-gates and enter the country without encountering a Border Force officer.

Most visitors are low-risk and will get through e-gates quickly, but it is good to have a system for pre-screening people before they arrive. So far, so good, but we have concerns.

First, there is an absence of any real campaigns by either the EU or UK to alert people to what is happening and provide helpful information. It seems crazy that official details about ETA requirements for people from around the world are only available in English.

Second, the currently planned rapid phasing in of ETA (covering all relevant nationalities by early 2025) gives little time to learn lessons from each phase.

Significantly, it seems the ETA and EU schemes will be introduced within a short time of each other with the real possibility of problems and delays at the border in both directions, especially if there are teething issues. We believe the EU and UK government should work together to develop a more realistic timeframe for implementation of all three schemes.

Third, there are question marks over the real benefit of ETA not least because of potentially inadequate data on which acceptance or rejection of an ETA application will be based.

For example, since our departure from the EU, we have lost real-time access to an important EU database (known as SIS II) which provided alerts on people of concern. While some mitigations have been put in place, we believe the government is not addressing the need to do everything possible, with the urgency needed, to ensure the availability of the best possible data.

We also think the government should widen the scope of questions asked on the ETA application form to provide additional information to help make judgements about each passenger.

Fourth, while security must remain the top priority, we’re worried about potential economic impacts.

This is exemplified by the issue of transit passengers who are required to pay for an ETA even when only travelling through a hub airport such as Heathrow. While the cost of an ETA is relatively small, it mounts up for a large family and seems a cumbersome process for those just using Heathrow as a place of transfer (especially when they will be able to use another European hub without needing the EU equivalent – an ETIAS).

The loss of Heathrow’s status as a major hub airport would be a huge blow for the UK. We have yet to see a convincing justification for this.

Fifth, there is the question of the island of Ireland. The UK is in a Common Travel Area (CTA) with the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The Government is committed to the CTA and an open land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The ETA requirement creates significant problems. For example, a tourist arriving in the Republic who wants to also visit Northern Ireland won’t have to show an ETA to get into the Republic. But people crossing the open border into Northern Ireland without one will be committing an offence. The ramifications of this have led to real concerns about the impact on cross-border tourism.

Finally, we are extremely concerned that at this crucial time there is no Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in post – after the government’s sudden sacking of the previous post-holder – to monitor the operational or sensitive aspects of these new systems, to identify and propose solutions to quickly rectify potential problems and avoid chaos.

No-one doubts the importance of improving border security and smoothing passenger journeys. But it’s vital we get all the details right before introducing new systems. We are not convinced that has yet been achieved.

Lord Foster of Bath is chair of the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee

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