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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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TRAVEL NEWS

Reader question: Does the UK border strike affect ferries, trains and the Channel Tunnel?

Coverage of a planned strike by British border force staff has focused on expected chaos at airports - but what about other methods of travel from France to the UK?

Reader question: Does the UK border strike affect ferries, trains and the Channel Tunnel?

Question: The news coverage of the planned strike over Christmas by UK border staff is all focused on airports – but won’t it also affect people travelling by ferry, train or on the Channel Tunnel?

The planned strike by members of the Public and Commercial Services Union is heavily focused on airports, with predictions of queues of up to 10 hours at the border, and flight cancellations.

Other transport methods are less affected, although the port of Newhaven is likely to be impacted as well.

Here’s what the PCS strike notice says: “PCS members employed by the Home Office on passport control will take action at London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports on December 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th, 28th, 29th, 30th and 31st [December 27th is not included].

“Members will also strike at the port of Newhaven on the same dates.”

This will affect arrivals on the ferry into the port of Newhaven – from where a ferry service runs to Dieppe in France.

Anyone who is booked on a Dieppe-Newhaven crossing around these dates should check with their operator for any changes.

According to the current strike notice, border force officials working at other British ports including Dover, Portsmouth and Plymouth will not take part in the strike action, nor will staff at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Folkestone.

British border officials also work in the French port of Calais and at the Eurostar terminal in Gare du Nord – they have so far not indicated that they will strike. However, anyone who is booked on the Eurostar should be aware that Eurostar’s UK security staff have filed a strike notice for over the Christmas period.

Christmas travel to France: What you need to know about strikes, services and prices

British border forces bosses had warned of a ‘nightmare’ at Channel ports, especially for trucker, in the run-up to the action, but the strike notice as filed on Wednesday concerns only airports and Newhaven ferry port.

However, the prospect of heavier-than-normal traffic as travellers find alternative routes to and from Europe could lead to further delays at ports and on tunnel services.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The government can stop these strikes tomorrow if it puts money on the table. 

“Like so many workers, our members are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. They are desperate. They are being told there is no money for them, while they watch ministers giving out government contracts worth billions of pounds to their mates.” 

As ever, things can change quickly with strike action, you can find all the latest in our strike section HERE.

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