Ever since the fateful vote in June 2016, questions have been asked about how Brexit will impact British citizens travelling to Europe. Now the European Commission has revealed the likely future: citizens will have to apply for special travel authorisation via the ETIAS (European Travel Information & Authorisation System) scheme.
Over 60 countries around the world – notably the US, Canada, much of South America, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, UAE, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia – are currently granted visa-free access to the Schengen states for 90 days in any 180-day period. Until March 2019, British citizens will benefit from unlimited access, but once the UK exits the European Union, the most likely scenario is that the British will join this list of ‘third country’ nations that enjoy visa-exemption and liberalisation status.
“We need to know who is crossing our borders,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, during a State of the Union address three months after the Brexit vote. “By November, we will propose an automated system to determine who will be allowed to travel in Europe. We will know who is travelling to Europe before they even get here.”
The Commission delivered the first drafts of ETIAS on time and a year later, a political agreement on its formation was reached among co-legislators. On 25th April 2018, when the final approval was given, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos and Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King said in a joint statement, “ETIAS is an important step towards building a safer and more secure Europe. This new system will carry out pre-travel screening for security and migration risks of travellers benefiting from visa-free access to the Schengen area. By cross-checking visa-exempt travellers against our information systems for borders, security and migration, ETIAS will help us identify anyone who may pose a security or migration risk before he or she even reaches the EU border.”
It is clear that improving internal security and ‘reinforcing the fight against crime and terrorism’ have ranked high on the objectives for the newly approved scheme. Indeed ETIAS has come on the back of a wave of other security measures: the adoption of European Agenda on Security (April 2015); an Action Plan on Firearms and Explosives (December 2015); an Action Plan on Terrorist Financing (February 2016); and the launch of the European Border and Coast Guard system (October 2016).
Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Avramopoulos has previously described ETIAS as the missing link in border management, arguing, “Europe’s openness does not come at the cost of its security.”
His views have been supported by his commissioner colleague King: “Terrorists and criminals don’t care much for national borders. The only way to defeat them is by working together effectively. ETIAS will help do that by spotting problem individuals and stopping them from coming [to Europe].”
The European Commission, meanwhile, has stated that the ETIAS application process will be ‘affordable, simple, fast and carried out in full respect of fundamental rights and EU data protection rules’. The organisation has also been keen to stress that the ETIAS is not a visa, but ‘a lighter and more visitor-friendly regime’; a complement to the EU’s visa liberalisation policy.
It should be noted that ETIAS is not a reaction to Brexit – the EU had been working to strengthen its external borders long before 52% of the British people voted to leave the community – but it does provide a feasible solution for concerns about travel rights that the British government has, so far, been unable to sufficiently calm.
The application & validation process
From 2021, visa-exempt non-EU citizens will have to have to fill out a 10-minute ETIAS application form online and pay a €7 up-front fee (for those between 18 and 70 years of age). The application will then be forwarded for automatic processing where the data requested during the application (residency information and criminal record, for example) will be checked against databases belonging to organisations such as Interpol. If something is flagged, the application will then be handled manually. It is, however, estimated that 95% of all cases will be given automated approval and ‘communicated within minutes of payment’.
Positive responses will be received within 96 hours and authorisation to travel in the Schengen zone will be accorded for three years or until the expiry of the travel document (passport or equivalent) provided during the application process – whichever comes first! In the case of a refusal, the applicant retains the right to appeal. Those holding authorisations will be expected to provide proof prior to boarding (by air, land or sea) in addition to their formal identification.
Authorisation may be revoked if it is found that ETIAS conditions are no longer met, if it was ‘fraudulently obtained’, if the holder has been refused entry to an EU member state or if the document has been reported lost or stolen.