A warning over the ethical, legal, logistical and political challenges arising from new EU border checks due to launch next year for UK residents has been sounded by the House of Lords Justice & Home Affairs Committee.

In a letter to the Home Secretary, published today, the committee highlights that the European Travel Information & Authorisation System (ETIAS) and Entry/Exit System (EES) could have serious consequences in the UK and for the rights and liberties of UK citizens. Voicing concerns over the UK being unprepared, it has outlined several recommendations for the Home Office.  

The EES will require most travellers to share their facial image and fingerprints with European authorities – and have them checked every time they travel to or from the EU – as part of border checks. The committee believes these checks are likely to cause sustained delays and disruption. The time taken to carry out these checks is also expected to permanently slow the flow of UK vehicles and passengers to and from the EU. In addition, it is impossible to carry out these checks in cars, so as it stands, passengers at ports will have to step into live traffic. 

The committee specifically highlights that raising awareness of the EES is crucial and will require far more than the Government’s stated approach of updating travel advice. It calls for the Government to "engage energetically" with domestic and international stakeholders, including embassies and consulates of EU member states, to raise public awareness of the new rules, and ensure that the relevant institutions fully understand the implications for the UK. 

ETIAS, which will launch six months after the EES, will require most travellers to apply online for a travel authorisation prior to entering the EU. The system will automatically process applications to assess whether an applicant poses a security, illegal immigration, or high epidemic risk. This involves checks against EU and Interpol security databases and algorithmic profiling. Under this system, an unknown proportion of UK citizens will lose their right to travel to the EU. 

The committee raises concerns that UK citizens may be discriminated against by the ETIAS algorithm, including on the basis of protected characteristics, and is urging the Government to engage with relevant European authorities to ensure that robust safeguards are in place to guarantee the fairness and lawfulness of the profiling algorithm that forms part of ETIAS. 

Further, it states, the Government should engage with relevant European authorities to clarify what the manual processing of ETIAS applications will involve, and whether someone denied a travel authorisation will be given the opportunity to re-apply. The Government should also seek specific assurances on how the rights of appellants will be effectively protected.

Committee chair Baroness Hamwee commented: "While we acknowledge that, recently, resources have been focused on the immediate impact of withdrawal from the European Union and on the pandemic, we are profoundly concerned about the lack of attention paid to either ETIAS or the EES. 

"Continuous EES checks are expected permanently to slow the flow of UK vehicles and passengers to and from the EU. We have heard that in Dover and Folkestone, red tape at borders has an immediate knock-on effect on traffic. If Schengen entry checks take more than a few seconds, within minutes cars can’t move forward. Congestion can quite quickly reach the motorways and then spread through Kent. 

"ETIAS, which will apply security checks, uses and retains a wide range of personal data and there is no indication what safeguards will be applied or how its profiling algorithm will avoid discrimination on the basis for instance of ethnicity. 

"With both these new systems, but, with ETIAS in particular, we note that it is crucial for the Government to raise awareness, which will require far more than simply updating travel advice. We have heard from industry representatives that travellers are saturated with instructions."

She added: "We look forward to receiving the Home Secretary’s proposals to engage with the EU to address the concerns we have raised, to ensure that rights and liberties are protected and that our travel is as smooth as possible. The impact will be on UK citizens, on UK soil."