Border controls are in the news a lot. Here in Kent at the Gateway of England we are very much aware of them. If there are hold-ups on the M20, is it due to French border officials not showing up? Or too many British tourists all trying to use Le Shuttle on the same holiday weekend? When we travel to London (phew – from Kent!) to catch the Eurostar we have to turn up 90 minutes in advance to be sure of getting through the border controls for the train we booked. Now we are even being told that Eurostar is having to run the train only two-thirds full because of the time it takes to get the passengers through the border controls.
Eurostar will not return to Ashford
Eurostar has announced it cannot resume services at Ashford International because it needs to recover after Covid and it has to concentrate on its core services (those two-thirds-full trains). The Department of Transport echoes that reasoning.
“Eurostar’s decision to temporarily stop services to Kent stations was entirely a commercial decision that Eurostar (as a non-franchised operator) took in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The international travel industry has faced unprecedented challenges as a result of Covid-19 and the transport sector continues to manage and respond to the impacts of this, including by consolidating their operations.”
Nothing about Brexit here, but Eurostar has made public the problems with the border controls. When the UK was in the EU, passengers could check in at Eurostar stations only 30 minutes before departure. We had freedom of movement. Now we are counted as a ‘third country’, which means we are subjected to border controls, those same controls that are causing the jams at St Pancras and Dover.
I looked up the EU regulations, finalised on 23 March 2016 (so the UK must have had a role in making them!). Annex IV:1 states, “The travel documents of third-country nationals shall be systematically stamped on entry and exit, in accordance with Article 11.”
Indeed, when I last travelled on Eurostar to Brussels, that was done at the checkpoints at St Pancras and then on departure at Gare du Midi. The British official just glanced at my passport, but the French ones wielded their rubber stampers. I suppose it now works the other way round for EU passport holders entering the UK: they too get a passport full of inky stamps.
Border controls return us to the past
It seems a bit antiquated – one step further back in the past and we’d be waving documents with royal seals in wax. So what about the automated systems? At airports, there are now the e-systems that work via facial recognition, with the biometric photo in the passport and compared to the photo shoot of the person facing the camera. This then opens the gate and allows you back on British soil. But you can only go through that way if your passport is biometric and from a list of countries (most of the advanced economies). The rest have to go to a desk and show their passport to a human being.
So at what point do nationals of the countries going through e-gates get a date stamp of entry in their passport as there are strict time-limits for visas and how does the government check on overstayers? The answer is that, since 2004, the UK moved towards API (advance passenger information) which means the carriers pass to the government information they get from the bookings of international travellers. By comparing the data on the dates of entry, for example international students, with the dates of departure, they can find out who is not recorded as having departed. That is the theory at least, and it is the basis of some of the ONS data on immigration-emigration from the UK.
The EU has plans for an automated system, called ETIAS. Non-EU nationals will be required to pay €7 to get an ETIAS authorisation in advance of their travel. The automated systems at border control will then collect all the data biometrically. This system has now been postponed four times and is now scheduled for 2024. Some reasons are given on the ETIAS website:
“The infrastructure at many airports, ports, rail and land crossings are currently unable to cope with such data capture. The delay is expected to provide more time to ramp up their capabilities and ensure their systems are prepared. It is expected that airports will find it easier to integrate the ETIAS within their systems as many have the scanning infrastructure in place as opposed to operators of port, rail or land crossings that likely do not have any such equipment or hardware.”
It also refers to technical issues, expense and staff training.
So is there an excess of techno-optimism with regard to EU border controls? The Independent‘s travel correspondent Simon Calder revealed that the pilot tests of the system did not go well. Slovenia reported the tests took longer than manual methods (although it is a puzzle that they included registration when that is supposed to be done prior to travel). The ETIAS system was envisaged before the Brexit decision which has enormously increased the amount of data it has to collect in Europe. Such a system works for the USA because it relates to databases all under the control of the federal government. The EU has to ensure interoperability with 27 countries.
There is a further possible reason for delay that is political. ETIAS is run by Frontex, the joint EU border control. Its new manager, Han Leitjens, took over in March 2023. Emma Wallis reported on this for InfoMigrants:
“The Dutchman has promised to ‘restore trust’ in the agency that last year was rocked by claims that Frontex agents had turned a blind eye to the illegal pushbacks of migrants at several EU borders. The claims led to the resignation of the former Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri and the appointment of an interim director, Aija Kalnaja, who has been carrying out the role since July 2022.”
This reveals that Frontex is in the midst of the intra-EU conflict between those states that want to exclude migrants and those that insist on their human rights. This is likely to be a key issue in the EU elections in June 2024. So it is quite likely that the EU commissioners will be reluctant to rock the boat about migrant control (with a faulty ETIAS system) before those elections.
Meanwhile in Kent…
So, if Britons are hoping for automated gates and ETIAS to ease our transit at St Pancras or Dover, this remains a 2016 twinkle in the eye. It’s likely we will have to rely on rubber stamps for a good while into the future. Meanwhile my exhaustive reading of EU rule 2016/399 Annex IV with regard to rail passengers and borders reveals that it is permitted for checks to be done on trains. So my question is: why not do so for cross-Channel trains?
The physical check that the ticket holder holds a passport with a picture that matches the face of the traveller can be done by the staff of the trusted carrier as it is already on many airlines. API with biometrics could still be supplied to the French Border Force, enabling them to identify security risks. For the further physical checks, they can march through the coaches wielding their rubber stampers with a smile and a shrug. That should enable Eurostar to fill up again, and preferably also stop in Ashford.