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INTERVIEW: Dover boss warns of ‘persistent long queues’ at French border

Six months from the planned entry into operation of new EU border checks, the Port of Dover is still in the dark on how the system will work, with the port's CEO warning of 'tailbacks throughout Kent' for passengers trying to cross to France.

INTERVIEW: Dover boss warns of 'persistent long queues' at French border
The Port of Dover boss has warned of 'congestion throughout Kent' due to the EU border checks due to come into effect next year. Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

The EU’s Entry/Exit System (EES) is the new digital scheme to register non-EU citizens each time they cross the external borders of the Schengen Area.

Expected to become fully operational at the end of May 2023, the EES will enable the automatic scan of passports, replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. 

You can find full details on how the scheme will work HERE.

The new system will come into effect in all the EU’s external borders – since Brexit this of course includes the UK-France border and there are major concerns about how this will work on the ground.

The border sees a huge amount of traffic – around 60 million passengers per year – and has a further quirk, that due to the Le Touquet agreement there are three places in the UK where travellers to the EU are cleared before departure; the port of Dover, Folkestone rail terminal and London’s St Pancras station. 

Given the amount of traffic it absorbs, the port of Dover will be particularly impacted by the EES. Already last summer long queues formed at UK Channel crossing points over the holiday season due to peak traffic and more rigorous post-Brexit checks. So how is the port planning for this major change next May? 

CEO Doug Bannister told The Local he does not know yet how the new system will work and he would welcome a delay or a transition period that would allow testing and addressing concerns. 

He said the planned implementation in May, just at the start of the summer travel season, could be a “risky time”.

“In every single period in the last three or four years, when deadlines have been set, we have always had to plan on the solution coming into place on the deadline. Now the regrettable thing is that until we truly know the details of how the system is going to work, the technology, the process… we have nothing to plan on to mitigate the concerns.

“Someone needs to describe the process and to show us the technology to support that process… We need to understand the implications of it, then we need to test to see if the technology doesn’t work well… or doesn’t do what the process is asking to do. Then we need time to train people to implement it.

“And to sit here early November, May 2023 seems awfully close to get all of that done,” he warned. 

Passport checks

Bannister explained that the UK and France operate juxtaposed controls at some border crossings, including Dover, meaning that immigration checks are carried out upfront.

People are currently advised to arrive 90 minutes before departure to go through security and immigration controls. One of the benefits, he says, is that “when you get to the other side, there is no queue, you just drive off the ferry and carry on.” 

The challenge is that the EES could generate queues, whether at the port or at the destination airport, as it involves taking four fingerprints and a facial image of all non-EU nationals crossing into the Schengen area.

This could mean that people travelling by car will all have to get out of the car to have their prints and scans taken – massively increasing the processing time per vehicle.

Bannister says the first-time registration, with the fingerprinting and the biometrics taken, is the most concerning part of the process as under current legislation it “has to take place at the border in front of an immigration officer”. 

The way this will happen, however, is not clear. Will people have to leave the car to have photo and fingerprints taken?

Bannister says the current process is “designed around an airport”, with individual passengers walking through a kiosk one at a time.

“The process as we have seen it has not had any considerations yet as to people going through a busy ferry terminal,” he explained. “That carries concerns, given the nature of our operations, where everything is moving and we have got trucks, coaches, motorcycles, caravans and cars.

“We can’t have people just get out of their car and wander around looking for a kiosk. It would be dangerous… So what we’ve been clear about is that any interventions that EES requires need to be done in the car… They need to be thinking a process that caters for passengers being in the vehicle and staying in the vehicle,” he argues.

Technical solutions

“One of the things that we have been seeking is for that registration process to be done online or remotely,” added Bannister. “But that does mean the legislation would have to change.” He also suggested to see “how much of the biometrics we need to register to get the process going”. 

Facial recognition technology is now available on smartphones and cameras, he continues, but the technology for fingerprinting is “not so great yet”. So there could be an “interim step” during which instead of two pieces of biometric IDs, only one piece of information would be required.

“But this is something for the European Union to get comfortable with,” he argues.

Delays

Another key aspect is time. A live testing at Prague airport, in the Czech Republic, found that passengers registered at an average processing time of 89 seconds.

Bannister says at the moment it takes between one and two minutes, and generally 90 seconds, to clear a car in Dover.

“If the registration process takes up to two minutes per person, that’s eight minutes for a car of four people, plus two minutes for the car to get everything done, so that’s ten minutes per vehicle compared to a minute and a half. Whilst it may not seem like a  tremendous addition per person”, he argued, this would lead to tailbacks “outside the port and throughout Kent.”

Infrastructure changes?

Last summer for the holiday season the port increased police capacity as an interim measure because a surge in traffic was expected after two years of pandemic.

In the coming years, Bannister says, the port plans to double permanent border facilities, from 5 to 10 booths, a “major infrastructure project”. The EES will be introduced against the existing controls but will ultimately have to match the design of the new facilities.

“Until we see the technology and the processes, it is very difficult, or it’s impossible, for us to know what sort of infrastructure changes we may need to make,” the CEO added. 

Although EU citizens are exempt from these checks, the port is currently not planning to create separate EU and non-EU lanes. Bannister said it will be more efficient to “try and get everybody through much faster” but this may be reconsidered if it is seen as beneficial.

Who decides and who pays?

The Local asked the European Commission about the implementation of EES at UK departure points like Dover, and they told us: “The Entry/Exit System (EES) is an automated system that the EU Member States need to implement for their own borders.”

The ‘member state’ in this instance is France, so we asked the French Interior Ministry, who told us: “The installation of EES gates it is not mandatory: it is up to the manager of each border crossing point to decide whether to use it.

“The French and British administrations are therefore exchanging with these managers on this subject in order to gather their analysis of the need.”

But Bannister said that it is not obvious whether French or UK authorities are responsible for the physical changes at Dover because the  Le Touquet Treaty is “not terribly clear on who pays for which bits of infrastructure”. 

Bannister says he is expecting an invitation to travel to France for a demonstration of the technology and that he would be “delighted to host a trial to see how it works in the Dover context.”

“My biggest concern is that we will get a process with technology thrust upon us and be told to get on with it” and that the result will be “significant congestion throughout Kent.”

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TRANSPORT

Eurostar faces severe disruption at Christmas as staff vote to strike

High-speed train operator Eurostar will face security staff walkouts that will "severely" disrupt busy Christmas services, their trade union said on Wednesday.

Eurostar faces severe disruption at Christmas as staff vote to strike

Eurostar, which links London with Paris and Brussels, is the latest firm hit by strikes as salaries fail to keep pace with rocketing inflation in a cost-of-living crisis.

The RMT rail union said in a statement that members working as Eurostar security voted overwhelmingly to strike on December 16th, 18th, 22nd and 23rd.

“The strike action will severely affect Eurostar services and travel plans for people over the December period,” it added.

More than 100 staff had voted “emphatically” to reject a pay offer that was below inflation.

The RMT added that the security workers are employed by facilities contractor Mitie.

“Security staff are essential to the running of Eurostar and it is disgraceful they are not being paid a decent wage,” said RMT general secretary Mick Lynch.

“I urge Mitie and Eurostar to come to a negotiated settlement with RMT as soon as possible.”

Britain faces a grim winter of discontent this year as strikes multiply across public and private sectors as pay is eroded by surging consumer prices.

Ambulance workers on Wednesday joined nurses in voting to go on strike ahead of Christmas.

Numerous other staff, from lawyers to airport ground personnel, have also held strikes this year as Britain contends with its worst cost-of-living crisis in generations.

UK inflation accelerated in October to a 41-year peak at 11.1 percent on runaway energy and food bills.

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