Fears of ‘massive disruption’ of travel between France and UK in 2023

Travellers planning a trip between France and the UK in 2023 are likely to face 'massive disruption' caused by a combination of the EU's new digital visa system and the UK government's unwillingness to work in a constructive manner with French or EU leaders, a former British ambassador to France has warned.

Fears of 'massive disruption' of travel between France and UK in 2023
Increased time for passports checks could lead to delays at the French border. Photo by Iroz Gaizka / AFP

Lord Peter Ricketts, who was the British Ambassador to France between 2012 and 2016 and now sits in the House of Lords, said he fears that a combative start to Liz Truss’ premiership is likely to make travel problems worse next year.

The year 2023 marks the delayed launch of two new EU travel systems – the EES entry and exit system and the ETIAS tourist visa system – both of which are likely to increase the time it takes to check passports at the border.

Lord Rickets said: “I think the EES, in particular, will be massively disruptive at the Channel ports and there is simply no goodwill on a political level between France and the UK to solve these problems.

“We saw this at the start of the summer with the problems at Dover, there was no doubt blame on both sides but it really comes down to the fact that passport checks take longer since Brexit and there is no point blaming France for that.

“When you have these problems it all depends on goodwill from both sides to resolve them, and it seems that is in short supply between France and the UK.”

The EES system – scheduled to come into force in May 2023 – is a way of keeping track of visitors within the EU and will apply at all external Schengen borders, while ETIAS – scheduled for November 2023 – is a €7 travel visa for tourists. 

You can find a full explanation of what it all means HERE.

While the EES system mean a few seconds of extra time on passport scanning at airports and Eurostar, it is expected to be particularly disruptive at ferry ports and the Channel Tunnel because the plans – as envisaged by the EU at this stage – mean that groups travelling in cars would have to get out of the car to have their passports scanned and provide facial scans and fingerprints.

This would massively increase the time it takes to process each car and could lead to more long tailbacks at UK ports like Dover and Folkestone.

Making the problem yet worse is the extremely tense state of UK-France relationships, which show no sign of thawing under the UK’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Lord Ricketts: “The relationship between the UK and France is pretty bad and I see no signs that it will improve.

“Liz Truss’ comment about Emmanuel Macron, refusing to say whether he was friend or foe, was pretty shocking. It was a ridiculous thing to say, of course France is a friend, and Macron’s response I thought was elegant.

“But it’s also her complete inability to say anything positive about the EU that has definitely been noted across Europe and it seems likely that we are heading for a confrontation between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“And of course these things all filter down to the daily co-operation that is needed between countries.

“I’d say on a personal level co-operation between France and the UK is good, every day there is co-operation between border forces, military, businesses, but on a political level it is not good.”

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How Brexit and Covid have derailed Eurostar services between France and UK

The French boss of Eurostar has laid out how the combination of the pandemic, Brexit and ongoing uncertainty over new EU travel rules have left the company in a very precarious position.

How Brexit and Covid have derailed Eurostar services between France and UK

The Eurostar CEO Jacques Damas has laid out the company’s woes in a long letter to British MPs, stating that as things stand “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus on our core routes . . . and to charge higher prices to customers”.

He said that two things have significantly damaged the company – the pandemic (worsened by the fact that the company received no state aid from the UK government) and Brexit which has made travel between France and the UK considerably more complicated with more checks required at stations.

Damas said that peak capacity at both London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord is 30 percent less than it was pre-Brexit, because of the increased infrastructure needed to check and stamp the passports of travellers.

He said: “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can only process a maximum of 1,500 passengers per hour, against 2,200 in 2019.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.

“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid to long-term.”

He added that the increased passport checks and stamping needed since Brexit adds at least 15 seconds to each passenger’s processing time, and that automated passport gates are less efficient.

The other factor that has hit the company hard was the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions, leading to revenues being cut by 95 percent for 15 months.

The London-based company struggled to access government financial aid due to its ownership structure, with both the British and French governments reluctant to assume sole responsibility for bailing out the company.

It began as a joint venture between the British and French governments, but then the British sold off its share to private investors.

Damas said: “Contrary to the £7 billion in state aid given to our airline competitors, Eurostar did not receive any state-backed loans”. 

By May 2021 the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and was eventually bailed out to the tune of €290 million in loans and shareholder-guaranteed loans and equity – although this saved the company it has now left it with huge debts to be repaid.

The CEO’s letter was responding to questions from British MPs on the Transport Select Committee who wanted to know when trains would again stop at Ashford station – which has been closed since March 2020. Damas said there was no immediate prospect of that, or of reinstating the route to Disneyland Paris, while the company grapples with these financial problems.

He added that there is also “considerable uncertainty” around the new EU travel systems known as the EES and ETIAS, which are due to come into effect in 2023 and which will require extra checking of passports at the EU’s external borders – such as the UK/France border. 

READ ALSO Fears of ‘massive travel disruption’ in 2023

Many Eurostar passengers have commented recently on increased ticket prices, and it seems that there is little immediate prospect of prices going back down to 2019 levels.