The EU plans to digitise and monetise its borders. Here’s how

The European Union’s plans to roll out a fee and automatic biometric scanning for non-EU travellers aim to secure the bloc’s border but have raised concerns about surveillance and potential delays.

The two systems Brussels wants to introduce would, once active, track all non-EU travellers’ entry and exit to the bloc. It will also introduce a €7 fee and pre-travel registration requirement for 1.4 billion people who previously enjoyed visa-free feeless access to the bloc.

The initiative comes after a previous attempt to tighten EU border security failed to secure consensus among the union’s 27 countries. Concerns have also been raised over the cost and delays of the EU’s new Entry and Exit System (EES) and European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS).

Despite the difficulty of introducing such systems, “the Commission attaches great importance to the timely delivery of EES, ETIAS and SIS” (Schengen Information System), and aims to introduce the new system by the end of 2023, a spokesperson told Euronews.

The EU’s Entry and Exit System

The EES will log the entry and exit of all non-EU travellers as they enter the bloc, as well as refusal of entry.

Automated kiosks carrying out biometric registration will replace physical passport stamping, with travellers being subjected to a facial photo and fingerprinting of four fingers.

This EES data will then be stored for three years, or five years in cases of people who overstay.

Currently, non-EU citizens from visa-exempt countries, including British nationals post-Brexit, can only spend 90 days within any 180 days in the bloc without requiring a visa.

Presently, there is no way of knowing if a traveller has overstayed the allowed 90 days except by looking at the dates of entry and exit stamps in a person’s passport.

The Commission says this method is slow and error-prone, since the entry and exit stamps may be unreadable or counterfeit.

While some countries, including Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus, have introduced national entry and exit tracking systems, these can’t track whether a non-EU national leaves the EU via another country.

The overwhelming of border management by irregular migration in recent years, which has allowed asylum seekers and migrants to travel onward within the Schengen area, has also created tensions between EU countries.

This is why the Commission believes an EU-wide EES system, which will not apply to citizens from the EU or Schengen area, is needed.

Much delayed and mixed opinions

Despite this, the EES, its introduction and its cost have faced significant criticism; though criticism of any project of its size and significance should be expected.

The EES was originally meant to launch in 2022, then postponed till May 2023, and is now slated to be delivered by the end of 2023.

While the EU’s executive insists it will cut waiting times at borders, member states have wildly different opinions.

Some countries, such as Lithuania agree with the Commission, but many more don’t.

Austria stated in November that “the additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times. Currently, we expect process times to double compared to the current situation.”

This concern is shared by Germany, which said that “passenger flows at the border crossing points were analysed in close cooperation with the aviation industry. It is estimated that control times for passengers will increase significantly by the introduction of EES.”

The scheme has also been criticised by digital rights NGOs, experts, advocates and academics at the European Digital Rights (EDRi) group.

Chloé Berthélémy, Senior Policy Advisor at EDRi called for “the prohibition of biometric mass surveillance and other biometric surveillance practices that disproportionately curtail rights and freedoms.”

She also warned against “the securitisation of migration issues and the strengthening of ‘Fortress Europe'” and the risks posed by potential cyber attacks on centralised digital identity databases.

However, a Commission spokesperson told Euronews that “safeguards are in place to ensure the rights of travellers as regards to the protection of their private lives and personal data. Their personal data will only be retained in the EES for as long as necessary and for the purpose(s) for which it was collected.”

They insisted that the collection of biometric data can significantly reduce cases of mistaken identity, discrimination, racial profiling, and people trafficking as well as countering serious crime and terrorism.

The EU’s ETIAS Scheme

The second scheme, ETIAS, which is being developed closely with the EES and relies on data provided by the EES will be introduced some months after the first scheme.

ETIAS will see travellers from non-EU countries who currently enjoy visa-exempt travel to the bloc forced to apply for EU travel authorisation and pay a €7 charge before arriving.

The Commission states that more than 95% of ETIAS applications will be automatically approved within a few minutes of submission.

Unless revoked, travel authorisations will last for three years and for multiple trips to the bloc, after which stage travellers will need to reapply.

Australia, Canada, and the United States all have similar schemes already in place.

The Commission argues that the cost of the system, which is currently set to be introduced in November, “should” be covered by the €7 fee which will go to the EU’s budget.

In 2018, tourist accommodation establishments in the EU recorded 168 million arrivals from third countries. If each one of these arrivals was a first-time trip to the EU and the ETIAS scheme had been in place, it would’ve generated over €1.1 billion in revenue.

However, the eventual revenue will be much lower than this figure. Firstly, those under 18 and over 70 do not have to pay the fee and the fee also covers multiple trips over 3 years. So someone who paid the fee to visit Spain in 2024 wouldn’t have to pay again till 2027, even if visiting other EU destinations.