A new automated EU immigration system due to enter into force next May will further complicate border fluidity between Gibraltar and Spain in the event UK/EU treaty talks end in no deal.
The Gibraltar Government has previously warned that a hard border could lead to delays “extending to several hours” due to “systematic and thorough” controls that Spain will have to conduct under EU laws, including scanning and stamping of passports.
As from May, the EU will step up immigration checks on non-EU nationals using technology which in theory will speed up the process, but which many countries fear will lead to longer delays in practice.
The new system, known as the Entry/Exit System [EES], will require biometric checks – meaning fingerprint and facial scans - on any non-EU national entering the Schengen area, irrespective of the length of their stay.
Under interim measures pending the outcome of the treaty negotiations, Gibraltar residents with red ID cards are currently exempt from the strict passport controls applied to non-EU passport holders, whose passports are logged and stamped as they cross into Spain and the wider EU.
As from May though, all non-EU nationals crossing the border will have to have their fingerprints and faces scanned using automated gates. That includes both pedestrians and people travelling in vehicles, who may have to alight to complete the procedures.
In the absence of a treaty agreement, that would apply to Gibraltarians and non-EU Gibraltar residents too.
In documents explaining the forthcoming change, the European Commission is clear about the requirements of the EES and its strict application across the board to ensure no entry point uses laxer procedures as a competitive advantage.
“As a non-EU national travelling for a short stay, if you refuse to provide your biometric data, you will be denied entry into the territory of European countries using EES,” the document prepared by the Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs Directorate states.
The EES will not be unique to Spain’s frontier with Gibraltar and will be implemented across all EU external borders, including in airports.
But in a narrow land border transited daily by thousands of pedestrians and vehicles in both directions, it will bring a distinct set of challenges for travellers and border guards alike.
On the Spanish side of the frontier, immigration officials are fine-tuning plans to put the system into place in the event UK/EU negotiators fail to reach agreement.
“This is a major change and will not be easy to implement or manage,” one Spanish source told the Chronicle.
The EES is aimed at speeding up immigration procedures for non-EU nationals through automation, but there were reports last month that many countries fear it will in fact slow them down.
Some countries believe clearance procedures could take up to four times longer than at present.
There are similar concerns in the UK too, where Doug Bannister, the chief executive of the port of Dover, told the Transport Select Committee in the House of Commons that checkpoints for drivers leaving the UK could increase seven-fold.
“We haven’t seen what the process is; we don’t know what the technology is,” he said.
“What we have heard is that it could be two minutes per person to register, plus two minutes for the car, so that’s 10 minutes for a car full of four people.”
The EES collects all personal data listed in a person’s travel document, as well as a facial images and fingerprints, and the date and place of entry or exit from and EU country.
Immigration authorities in European countries will use the EES to verify a person’s identity and understand whether they should be allowed to enter or stay in the EU. The data is also accessible by European law enforcement agencies.
The EES will replace the current system of manual stamping of passports, which the EU says is time consuming and does not provide reliable data on border crossings or systematic detection of “over-stayers”, meaning travellers who have exceeded the maximum duration of their authorised stay.
Under Schengen rules, non-EU citizens including British nationals after Brexit can only stay in the EU 90 days in any 180-day period before requiring a visa.
A non-EU national who overstays their 90 days can be removed from the territory, fined or detained, and even prevented from re-entering the EU in future.
The introduction of the EES in May is a first step toward the EU’s new European Travel Information and Authorisation System [ETIAS], which will be rolled out in November 2023.
British nationals will not require a visa to travel to EU countries but will have to register for authorisation from ETIAS and pay seven euros for a three-year visa waiver, much like the US ESTA system that has been in place for some years.
Spanish authorities have installed self-service kiosks at the border through which travellers will be able to pre-register their biometric details on the EU database for use with ETIAS.
The EU will store personal data for three years and in line with EU data protection laws.