‘The clock is ticking’: Why new post-Brexit border rules are fraught with issues

Severe disruption could affect holidaymakers travelling from the UK to Europe over October half term when a new EU border scheme is due to come into force.

The Entry/Exit System (EES) is expected to cause queues of up to 14 hours at Dover and may require Eurostar to cap passenger numbers from St Pancras, according to evidence given to the European scrutiny committee.

A spokesperson for the European Commission told i: “The roadmap for the delivery of the new IT [systems] foresees that the Entry/Exit System will be ready to enter into operation in autumn 2024”.

EES will require photographs and fingerprints to be taken from non-EU/Schengen Area passport holders, including Britons, on their first visit to the EU or Schengen Area after the system is implemented. They will also need to answer questions about their travel plans as part of a system that was first developed before the UK left the EU.

At UK ports and St Pancras, these checks will be carried out by French border control as part of a reciprocal agreement that already exists between France and the UK.

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, told i: “UK and EU authorities need to get together and agree an urgent solution – this could mean a special derogation for the UK or even a remote app-based technology solution. The clock is ticking, and we need some action now.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2023/12/22: A long queue is seen for Christmas travelers for Eurostar at St Pancras International Train Station. Many travelers are seen at St Pancras International Train Station on Friday evening for the Christmas holidays. (Photo by Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Eurostar may need to cap passenger numbers from St Pancras (Photo: Getty)

Without solutions, Eurostar may be required to limit daily passenger numbers from London. High Speed 1, which operates high-speed rail services from London to the Channel Tunnel, said that a decision not to enable online pre-registration for EES would “put enormous pressure on infrastructure at St Pancras International”.

“Achieving an acceptable level of service on day one [of the system] in all EU member states is likely to be impossible,” it warned the European scrutiny committee.

The European Commission has proposed allowing some of the pre-registration process to be completed through a smartphone app, although it is not yet clear when and where this could be used.

It has been suggested that on their first visit travellers could register their biographic details before arriving at the border and use the app to take biometric images for facial recognition. These details will be kept on file for three years, during which time British passengers should be able to scan their passports at the relevant gates, as they do on entry to the UK.

Fingerprints would still need to be taken at a border kiosk in the presence of a border official.

Airlines UK, the association for UK airlines, said carriers have concerns about the implementation of the system that will require airlines to verify customer data before travel to the EU or Schengen Area.

The EES will apply for travel to 25 EU countries (but not the Republic of Ireland or Cyprus) and four non-EU countries that are part of the Schengen Area – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

Long delays at UK ports

Dover

A “reasonable worst-case scenario” would see waits of 14 hours at the Port of Dover if EES is implemented as planned, according to Ashford Borough Council.

The EES could cause major disruption to the local economy if it begins without “useable systems” in place.

“Operation Brock”, the system used to manage traffic during long queues at Dover, has previously had a negative impact on Kent businesses.

Non-EU/Schengen Area passport holders will have their data, including facial images, fingerprints and the date, time and place of entry, taken at the Port of Dover and other UK passenger ports where French border control operate.

“The impact on Dover’s tourist ferry business would be severe as the system would not be capable of processing current car and coaches volumes,” reads the evidence from Dover Harbour Board (Port of Dover) and several ferry operators.

Mr Ballantyne added: “Some UK gateways have juxtaposed immigration controls, meaning for example the French passport checks are undertaken on passengers leaving the UK before sailing to Europe.

“This means decisions and policies made by the EU can have a direct impact on port operations on UK soil, making it justified for the British authorities to seek assistance from the EU and France.”

Ferry passengers at Dover faced queues of up to 20 hours over the Easter weekend in 2023, with gridlock blamed on post-Brexit checks.

These checks include a requirement for all non-EU/Schengen passports to be stamped on entry and exit from the EU/Schengen Area to ensure that travellers do not exceed a stay of 90 in 180 days. EES will replace passport stamping.

Dover has previously called for special dispensation that enables the EES process to be conducted remotely.

Eurotunnel

The process of registering a passenger on their first trip after EES comes into force could add an average of five to seven minutes to their journey time, according to Getlink, which manages and owns the infrastructure of the Channel Tunnel.

Getlink is investing more than €80m in developing the terminals in Folkestone and Coquelles in preparation for the new requirements under EES.

What it means for Eurostar services

Eurostar may have to cap daily passenger numbers from St Pancras after HS1 raised concerns about the station’s ability to handle the changes due to space constraints.

The French government has allocated 24 EES kiosks for St Pancras, where checks will take place for travel to the EU, but modelling has suggested that nearly 50 kiosks would be needed at peak travel times.

How it could work at EU airports

The process will begin in the UK. Airlines will need to update their check-in systems to verify customer data with EES before travel, according to Airlines UK.

Non-EU/Schengen Area passport holders will then face additional checks at EU/Schengen Area airports, which could result in long waiting times.

The French public finance watchdog Cour des Comptes released a report last year that estimated that queues at the UK-France border will at least double when the EES is launched in 2024.

Airlines UK says that the delays caused by EES could be most acute at smaller, seasonal airports.

Busy airports for UK arrivals

Spain is the most popular destination among UK travellers and Palma de Mallorca is among the European airports with the highest number of British arrivals. Data from OAG shows it has more than 2.9 million seats allocated from UK routes in summer 2024.

Aena operates airports across Spain, including in Palma de Mallorca, Tenerife and Alicante, and it says it is working on installing the necessary equipment for EES.

This includes automatic border control gates, self-registration kiosks, verification tablets and security cameras.

Bernard Lavelle, principal aviation consultant at BL Aviation Consulting, said: “So far, I believe only Lithuania has EES set up at its borders.”

Confusion for travellers

Mr Lavelle told i: “As with a number of things EU, EES could become a bit of a mess due to the confusion it will cause travellers.”

Several UK-based travel organisations have suggested that the changes for travel to Europe need to be better communicated to Britons.

“Significant work will have to go into passenger communications ahead of the [EES] launch to ensure customers are ready and know what to expect,” Airlines UK said in its written evidence to the committee.

The European Commission spokesperson said: “The Entry/Exit System will enable automation of border controls which should ease the experience of travellers at the EU’s external border crossing points.

“To ensure an efficient implementation of the new procedures, all necessary preparations at border crossing points must be completed before the start of operations. The commission is in contact with the operators to facilitate their preparation.”

The EES will be the first step in new EU border rules, followed by Etias – a visa waiver system for non-EU passport holders, similar to the US Esta. This will apply for travel to 30 European countries and will require application ahead of travel.

People aged between 18 and 70 will have to pay €7 for the authorisation, while under-18s and over-70s will be exempt from the charge.