Sunak Wants EU Deal on Passport Checks After Post-Brexit Chaos

Rishi Sunak wants to leverage the UK’s improved relationship with the European Union into a deal to make it easier for Britons to travel to the bloc, people familiar with the matter said, after recent high-profile border delays undermined the government’s narrative about the benefits of Brexit.

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak wants to leverage the UK’s improved relationship with the European Union into a deal to make it easier for Britons to travel to the bloc, people familiar with the matter said, after recent high-profile border delays undermined the government’s narrative about the benefits of Brexit.

The prime minister hopes to reach an agreement to let Britons use EU e-gates for passport checks, the people said on condition of anonymity because the plans haven’t been made public. That would speed up border crossings because manual checks — which include passport stamps since the UK left the bloc — have contributed to frequent bottlenecks during busy periods.

A formal approach has not yet been made, a UK official said, though diplomats are raising the issue informally. The bloc didn’t respond to a request for comment. Sunak is next due to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Group of Seven summit in Japan in May. 

Sunak has worked to rebuild ties between Brussels and London which deteriorated under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who both threatened to rip up parts of the Brexit deal Johnson himself had signed with the bloc. In March, Sunak and von der Leyen agreed a revamped deal on post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland, drawing a line under one of the thorniest issues of the divorce.

But border crossings are a fundamental issue in the broader Brexit debate, making it politically awkward for both sides. The EU only allows citizens from the bloc and affiliated European Economic Area nations to use its passport e-gates, and extending them to Britons would violate the principle that the post-Brexit UK shouldn’t maintain privileges of EU membership.

It’s also tricky for Sunak and his governing Conservative Party, which is determined to play down any adverse impacts of Brexit given it presented the divorce as a transformative benefit. Damaged trade, border delays and having to pay for mobile data roaming are among the issues that are making some voters rethink the 2016 decision to leave the bloc.

Still, there is precedent for practicalities to trump Brexit ideology and behind the scenes, UK officials accept that border crossings — and the delays that snarled up Dover’s port for days at Easter — are a problem that needs solving.

The UK already allows EU visitors to use e-gates in Britain, meaning there is a disparity in travel arrangements for British and European citizens. Previous British governments have tried and failed to make use of e-gates reciprocal.

The government is encouraged that Spain has unilaterally decided to let Britons use its e-gates last year, the people said. The UK is hopeful a similar arrangement could be expanded across the whole EU, they said.

Under current EU plans due to be implemented in 2024 to streamline border crossings, citizens from the UK and other so-called third-countries could have their fingerprints and facial biometrics taken to obtain a “visa waiver.” But the British government is worried this will not solve the problem of delays, and is looking for full access to the bloc’s e-gates, according to the people.

–With assistance from Jorge Valero and Alberto Nardelli.

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