British travellers entering the EU will not be required to have their fingerprints and facial biometrics taken until 2024 at the earliest as post-Brexit checks are pushed back.
Europe’s delayed entry/exit system (EES) was expected to take effect in 2021 and is currently due to commence in November 2023. But The Independent has learnt that the electronic border scheme will not now go ahead this year because the database on which it depends will not be ready in time.
A formal announcement is expected in June.
Several EU members have expressed alarm at the extra time the new arrival processes will involve, with the Slovenian government warning: “It takes up to four times longer to do the new process.”
The earliest possible date for the checks to be brought in is now believed to be May 2024, but that option is meeting stiff opposition from Paris, which is hosting the summer Olympics from 26 July to 11 August next year.
France is expecting to welcome many tens of thousands of athletes, support staff, officials, media and sports fans for the Games. The organisers do not want any added frontier friction or possible teething problems from EES.
A more likely date in 2024 is November, an annual low point for the volume of international travellers.
The postponement will be a huge relief for the Port of Dover, Eurotunnel and Eurostar.
When Brexit took effect at the start of 2021, each of those organisations had a hard EU frontier imposed. Due to long-standing agreements, border controls for rail and key ferry links are “juxtaposed” – with French border officials on duty at the UK’s main ferry port, the Folkestone Eurotunnel terminal and London St Pancras station.
Executives have warned that there is currently no feasible solution for the extra operations involved in capturing fingerprints and facial biometrics.
Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover, told The Independent earlier this year: “The introduction of the European entry/exit system with a set of biometric controls – that’s going to present some challenges.
“We still have some way to go before we’re confident in a solution being delivered.”
Uncertainty about the impact of EES on operations has led the luxury travel company Belmond to cancel the UK portion of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train from later this year.
The added bureaucracy the UK signed up for in the EU Withdrawal Agreement is already causing sporadic problems at Dover. At the start of the Easter school holidays, thousands of coach passengers to the continent waited for many hours because of extended border control processes following Brexit.
The Independent understands that decision to delay EES further was taken last month by the management board of EU-Lisa, the European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.
At a meeting at a Stockholm airport hotel, officials concluded EES could not be ready in 2023 and told the agency to come up with alternatives.
The next meeting, which will be online, is scheduled for 31 May 2023. An official announcement of the postponement is likely to follow shortly afterwards.
Europe’s entry/exit system has been in development since before the Brexit referendum in 2016.
The aim is to tighten controls at the external border of the Schengen Area – comprised of almost all European Union members plus additional states including Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.
Each time the traveller crosses a Schengen border, the system will register their fingerprints and a facial biometric, as well as the date and place of entry or exit.
The Electronic Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias), informally known as the “eurovisa,” is likely to follow about six months later.
Etias depends on EES being fully functional. Earlier this year the European Commission said the €7 (£6) permit would not be introduced before 2024.
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