Brexit: Taking back control of our borders?
By Tony Smith CBE, Chairman, International Border and Technologies Association.
One of the standard political catchphrases in the ongoing saga of the UK’s exit from the European Union is ‘taking back control of our borders’. This is alongside ‘taking back control’ of a few other things, such as our money, laws, fishing and farming. So, what do we mean by border control – and how will this really change after Brexit (assuming Brexit ever happens, that is)?
In fact, the UK already has a pretty comprehensive border control in place. Every passenger arriving in the UK goes through passport control where identity is verified and watch lists are checked. A great many of them are in fact checked before arrival, through the submission of Advanced Passenger Information (API) by the transportation company bringing them. Electronic exit checks are also in place. The only exception to this is at the UK/Irish border, where the Common Travel Area allows free movement of persons between the UK and Ireland. And the Channel Islands, for that matter.
Unlike most of the other EU Member States, neither the UK nor Ireland is part of the ‘Schengen Acquis’ which allows the free movement of people within the Schengen zone. In fact, both the UK and Ireland have a specific ‘opt out’ of Schengen – something no longer available to other EU Member States. This means that all EU and EEA passports holders will still go through passport control upon entry to the UK or Ireland; and may be refused entry in certain circumstances relating to public health, public security or public policy. Equally, ‘third country’ nationals require a permission to enter the UK when arriving from another EU Member State; and this includes a visa if they are citizens of a country on the UK visa list.
So, what is the additional element of ‘control’ that Brexit will bring to the UK Border? The CTA will be preserved, so, contrary to some opinion, there will be no need for passport controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, although customs controls are more problematic. Everybody arriving from elsewhere will still go through passport control. What difference will Brexit make?
The key distinction will be the UK proposal to end ‘free movement’ of people within the EU. This means in effect that EU and EEA (and Swiss) passport holders will in future need a ‘permission’ to enter the UK. You might argue that they already need that now – and you might be right, to a point. But under current law there is an expectation that all EU/EEA/Swiss passport holders will be admitted at the UK Border, regardless of their purpose in coming to the UK or their proposed duration of stay. That is not the case for other ‘third country’ nationals. They need ‘permission’ (currently described in law as ‘leave’) to enter the UK; and this may be refused if they do not meet the requirements of the immigration rules. So – at some point in the future – all EU/EEA/Swiss passport holders will require leave to enter the UK, in the same way that ‘third country’ nationals require leave to enter now. And they will need permission to stay. Indeed the EU registration scheme is already underway, inviting those EU nationals wishing to stay in the UK post Brexit to register for a permission to so.
So, when we talk about ‘taking back control of our borders’ what we really mean is ‘taking back control of EU migration’. This is beyond doubt a response to rising immigration figures from the EU; and the consequential impact upon UK population growth and pressure upon social services, accommodation and infrastructure in the UK to cope with this.
Ironically, since the decision was taken by the British people to leave the EU in 2016 net migration from EU countries has dropped from a high of 180,00 in 2015 to 74,000 in 2018; suggesting that many EU citizens voted with their feet when they felt unwanted. Oddly, net migration from ‘third country’ citizens rose to a record high of 248,000 in 2018; the highest figure since 2004. Yet this is an area over which the UK government already has control (or should have control)?
So, you might say that the government could ‘take back control’ of its borders (and by that they really mean immigration, which doesn’t have the same ring to it) without leaving the EU at all, but by issuing rather less visas and permits to stay than they do now. Something they vowed to do some years ago, with a policy intent to reduce overall net migration to less than 100,000 a year. Small wonder there has been a row in Cabinet between the new Home Secretary Sajid Javid and the former Home Secretary and now Prime Minister Theresa May over this policy; and a change of tone to reduce immigration to ‘sustainable numbers’ rather than a set figure.
In fact, many politicians argue (with some justification) that leaving the EU will compromise UK border control. That is because UK membership enables access to several EU systems such as Europol, Eurojust and the Schengen Information System (SIS2) for background checks.
But perhaps things are rather simple. People will always disagree on immigration and asylum policy, numbers and so on. But the majority still need to feel that they have ‘control’; and policy can be adjusted in tune with the elected government of the day. This becomes more difficult when the elected government of the day cedes power in contentious policy areas such as this to an unelected supra national authority such as the EU Commission. Which is itself wedded to fundamental freedoms of movement of goods, people, capital and services. And woe betide any Member State who dares to challenge that.
The UK Border Force is one of the best in the world, training border agencies across the globe on detection, intelligence, targeting and the like. To say that we don’t have control of our borders undermines them and the great work that they do both overseas, at our ports of entry, and inland. But like anyone else they need to understand who is calling the shots on immigration and asylum policy in the UK; and what tools will be provided to them to enable them to deliver their mission.
There will never be complete agreement on Brexit. It is hard to imagine a topic that has created greater division in UK society than this. But endless squabbling in the UK parliament - and between the UK and the EU - is not helping, regardless of your position on leave or remain. The restoration of very clear powers to the UK parliament, coupled with consistent messaging and actions from our political leaders, is the most likely vehicle to satisfy people that the government is really in control of its borders – or anything else, for that matter.
Tony Smith CBE is a former Director General of the UK Border Force with over 40 years’ government experience in immigration and border control. He is now an independent border management consultant, managing director of Fortinus Global Ltd, and chairperson of the International Border Management and Technologies Association.
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