Comment Blog 23 March, 2017

The front door to the world – the future UK border

With less than a week to go until Theresa May triggers Article 50, the country waits with baited breath to discover the future of UK and EU borders. Both sides have been unwilling to reveal much. Michael Barnier, lead negotiator for the EU, hinted on Twitter that the EU27 were preparing to impose customs controls. Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has raised fears of a ‘hard border’ between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. This would involve the return of custom-posts and onerous border checks, a common feature during the IRA troubles in Northern Ireland.

In response, May and the Government are determined to secure ‘as friction-free and as fluid’ a border as possible.

A hard border should not be an inevitable conclusion between the U.K. and Ireland.  Technology advances, pioneered by global leaders, can enable the UK to design what, for the vast majority of the 123 million people entering the UK each year, will be a ‘virtual’ border, requiring no interactions with border force staff. Better data collection on incoming passages can more accurately identify those who pose a threat. This should be the case for not just the UK border with Ireland, but also the whole UK border – making borders more efficient and safer.

This process can work through more smartly using today’s technology. Sharing relevant personal information with the government before the trip can speed up security checks, and passengers can check in for travel using kiosks and e-gates, which scan faces and security documents to verify travellers. During the flight a mobile phone app can share details of arrival with the border force to pre-clear for entry. This can also instruct travellers which gate to go to. Further e-gates or kiosks can scan passenger’s faces to allow entry into the country, without needing to queue for a passport to be stamped, or interact with border forces at all. Those implementing these processes need to overcome fears over personal data usage. According to Accenture, 58 per cent of people would share personal data if it means less queuing at border control. In the Netherlands, an e-gate programme already processes travellers in less than 15 seconds, compared to today’s waits of up to 45 minutes in the UK.

Better data collection can now be used to more accurately identify incoming passengers who pose a security threat. Australia is a leader here, conducting a national risk-based border intelligence, allowing a pre-arrival risk assessment of passengers. The EU is issuing new sources of data, such as passenger’s social media profiles, to better identify those who might pose a threat. Data sharing can also be done in real time, using apps developed in the US, for example, with border forces being updated with the status of persons of interests’ travel status. Such approaches are relatively new so evidence of their effectiveness is not available, but they hope to identify threats with greater accuracy and use staff more effectively to meet known threats.

Regardless of the outcomes of the Brexit negotiations, the UK should not return to a hard border. Using modern technology and rich data, the UK border with Ireland can remain a safe, frictionless frontier. The rest of the UK should use this approach across its whole border to create borders fit for the future.