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UK travel bosses: We’re running out of time to prepare for new EU border checks

The top executives in charge of the Port of Dover, the Eurotunnel and Eurostar fear they won’t have enough time to build the necessary infrastructure and avoid long queues when the new EU border system EES comes into effect, probably at the end of next year.

UK travel bosses: We're running out of time to prepare for new EU border checks
Passengers wait in long queues at the Saint Pancras Eurostar terminal Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP

While an app is being developed to register passengers, the representatives of the three companies raised concerns about the lack of information surrounding the enforcement of the EU entry/exit system (EES), despite years of delays.

“If we’re going to make any infrastructure interventions, we are already running out of time,” said Doug Bannister, CEO of the Port of Dover, on the assumption that the EES will go live in October or November 2024.

The chief executives of Channel Tunnel operator Getlink and the Eurostar also warned of the need for extra infrastructure to manage the “more complex” passport controls and called on the UK government to provide investment.

The three executives were giving their views on the state of preparations at a meeting of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, on Wednesday in London.

The EU entry/exit system (EES) is being built to collect information about non-EU citizens each time they cross the external borders of the Schengen area. The purpose is to increase security and ensure the enforcement of the 90-day limit in any 180-day period for visitors.

It will involve more complicated border processes for non-EU citizens including fingerprinting and facial scans.

READ ALSO What is the EU’s EES system and how will it work?

After several delays, the latest information indicates the EES won’t be launched until after the 2024 Paris Olympics, to avoid congestion at peak traffic time, but EU countries have not set a date yet.

This, and the lack of details of how the system will work, leave Channel crossing operators in the blind on the sort of infrastructure they have to put in the place, it was said at the meeting.

The UK is in a unique position because, by international arrangements, border checks for France are operated at the port of Dover, the Folkestone Eurotunnel terminal and London’s St Pancras station (as they are for the UK in Calais and at the Eurostar terminals in Paris and Brussels).

Eurotunnel

The Eurotunnel has so far not seen as many post-Brexit delays as the Port of Dover, but its chief executive has warned that extra infrastructure is needed to cope with the new checks.

“The process by which that [passenger] data will be captured, using tablets, using kiosks, using smartphones, using face to face interaction with border officers, is not yet fully determined,” said John Keefe, Chief Corporate and Public Affairs Officer at Getlink, the firm operating the Channel Tunnel.

The time required to capture this information on top of passport control could be “anything between a multiple of two to four times the time required to go through the border today,” he added. “That unresolved, could result in significant queuing for passengers in cars in particular,” he continued.

Some 80 to 85 percent of the passengers going through the Channel Tunnel are British citizens, he said.

Keefe argued that the system was designed primarily for airports in the EU, not for seaports in the UK.

He said: “We understand that there will be a test phase probably pre the Paris Olympics, but we have no confirmation of the state of advancement of the systems that will be tested, nor when that phase might start… And that puts us in the invidious position of having to prepare for something that will require significant infrastructure remodelling without having a final spec to go to;”

Keefe added works would involve putting a new building where passenger data could be captured protected from the weather. This would require “to reroute our whole passenger terminal on both the UK and the French side, new cabling, new infrastructure, new technology, new offices, new space for officers.”

“We’ve got a year, a year and a bit, to prepare if it [the EES] comes into force in the autumn of 2024. That’s not a lot of time to build that kind of scale of infrastructure, costing tens of millions of pounds, whilst also operating the everyday service that we run at the moment,” he warned.

An app to register travellers

The current understanding is that there will be an app for the registration of travellers, but there is little information on how it will work. It is also not clear the system for non-EU passport holders who have residency in an EU country – eg UK nationals who have a French carte de séjour.

“We need to know that the app is coming in and what it’s going to entail, and we need to be given the time to test that… we kind of need to know about that now, because if we’re going to make any infrastructure interventions, we’re already running out of time,” the CEO of the Port of Dover argued.

Another problem, he said, is that remote registration would require a change in the EU law setting up the EES because this currently says the data has to be captured under the supervision of a border officer or, if captured remotely, be verified at the border by an officer.

“One of the things that we’ve been pushing very hard for is so-called remote registration. That would then enable things to be done even at home or certainly in advance of the traffic reaching the port or the tunnel,” he argued.

For coaches, the discussion is about passenger registration in the western docks, away from the ferry terminal, but not so remotely and without the possibility for people to get off between that point and the border.

Eurostar terminal

For Eurostar, Renaud Thillaye, Head of Public Affairs, said after Brexit and Covid-19 the number of people processed per hour at the terminal has been reduced by about one third and work is ongoing to improve e-gates.

“But clearly EES is a challenge of another level because it will make border queues more complex,” he argued.

“We will have to separate EU and non-EU passport holders, so we need more capacity. One of the challenges we have is that we will have to install pre-registration kiosks somewhere in the station… and in St. Pancras it’s not that there is extensive space,” he said.

He added there are plans to expand capacity using the upstairs space at the station and called on the UK government to invest in the terminal, like the French and the Belgian governments are doing on their side.

Eurostar customers are “overwhelmingly non-EU,” he explained. “The UK is clearly our first market. The US and the rest of the world is growing very very fast…. You can imagine, a lot of tourists will come to London, spend a few days and then travel on to Europe. They will go through St Pancras and they will need to register into the EES. So for us it is a big, big concern,” he said.

Publicity campaign

Another issue is the lack of communication with the public about the new system, Keefe noted.

“We don’t believe that the travelling public are aware that this is coming… there has to be a significant amount of communication from the government to the travelling public, to explain to them what they will need to do in order to get through the border,” he said.

On its part, the UK will also introduce the Electronic Transport Authorisation (ETA), that will require people travelling from Europe and elsewhere to register before arriving into the country.

“We’re looking at two schemes that do the same thing across the same space with our unique juxtaposed border controls, which to an operator begs the question: why aren’t we pooling resources to make this data capture work for both sides and then simplify the systems to make it interoperable, as we have done with freight?” argued Keefe.

He said for the transport of goods, customs declarations are now obtained in advance, the data is shared with both the UK and the French authorities, and a truck today goes through the Channel Tunnel at the same speed as it did before 2019, the peak time for number of truck movements. “We should be able to do that with people,” he said.

Bannister agreed that the French and UK governments should work together “to come up with a common platform” which “would make it much simpler for hauliers, for tourists and for anybody wanting to travel.”

Both said that while the relationship between the two countries has been cold in recent years, there has been “some demonstrable progress” in the last six months. But whenever this option is mentioned, “it elicits wry smiles from both sides”.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Flights to Italy from Libya resume after nearly 10 years

A Rome-bound aircraft departed on Saturday from Libya's capital, restarting flights to Italy after a nearly decade-long suspension due to an EU ban, authorities in Tripoli said.

Flights to Italy from Libya resume after nearly 10 years

The European Union in 2014 halted flights operated by Libyan airlines and banned them from entering member states’ airspace, as the war-torn North African country was mired in intense fighting.

Saturday’s flight took off from Tripoli’s Mitiga airport. It was operated by Libya-based Medsky Airways, which offers a twice-weekly direct connection to the Italian capital.

Restarting flights is “part of intensive government efforts to lift the European ban on Libyan civil aviation”, said Libya’s UN-recognised government on Facebook.

Medsky Airways was launched in 2022, the year after EU member Malta announced it would allow flights to and from Libya.

It was unclear how the airline was able to circumvent the EU ban, which remains in place.

The Europan ban was imposed after a coalition of mostly Islamist militias called “Fajr Libya” seized Tripoli following weeks of fighting that caused massive damage to the city’s international airport.

Successive Libyan governments have since pushed for the ban to be lifted.

Abdelhamid Dbeibah, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based government, said in early July that “the Italian government has informed us of its decision to lift the air embargo imposed on Libyan civil aviation for 10 years”.

Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, and the Mediterranean island nation of Malta are now the only European countries to have resumed flights with Libya.

Rome has not officially commented on the move.

For much of the past decade, Libyans had to transit through Tunis, Istanbul or Cairo to reach Europe by air.

Oil-rich Libya plunged into years of chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed strongman Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

The country remains divided between two rival administrations, one in Tripoli and the other in Libya’s east backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

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