When I first secured a job in Belgium, I was living in Pakistan. Despite my excitement and focus, the process of applying for a visa took seven whole months! It was complicated, stressful and at times very demoralising – the very opposite of what one hopes for when embarking on a new journey.
My experience is just one of the hundreds of thousands that people go through every day when attempting to travel, work and trade across borders. Long waits at border crossings, endless forms and procedures, and worst of all – repeatedly being asked for the same information or documentation. All this can really suck the joy out of any travel experience. It also does not bode well for Europe’s position at a time when firms are embroiled in a global race for talent and demographics point to a need for skilled migrants.
For every government, of course, the need to balance border security with ease of travelling is a hard one to pull off. But with some new thinking, it should be possible to make the process more humane, less stressful and even seamless for legitimate trade and travellers, while keeping borders secure from criminal and illegitimate travellers. That’s the challenge facing the European Union and member states. How can they balance the facilitation of seamless, friction-free trade and travel with the need to prevent terrorism, organised crime and illegal immigration? Some progress has already been made in the past in Europe when the Visa Information System (VIS) went live in 2011, it cut down the processing time for some categories of visas to 3 weeks, but this only covered short stay Schengen visas. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that digitisation and data sharing can significantly improve both facilitation and security.
In response, the EU is pursuing a number of initiatives. One of the most important of these is the imminent launch of Entry/Exit Legislation, which mandates member states to start registering every “entry” and every “exit” by a non-European national in the Schengen Zone. The legislation was signed on the 30th November 2017 and shall become fully functional by 2020 at the latest.
EU-Lisa, the European agency responsible for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the areas of freedom, security and justice, is now launching the procurement to build the central database that will store all of that entry and exit data.
Within the next year or two, every member state is going to have to start exploring the systems they will need to support the EU’s database. Primarily, that means looking at their airports and border checkpoints and figuring out how to process people who travel today without a visa (e.g. from the United States) but who in the future will need to provide biometric data and biographical data just like short stay visa travellers today. Those systems will also have to verify identity and spot and report overstayers to keep relevant authorities informed. The challenge facing each member state is how to collect all that data without creating the undesirable impact of long queues at airport security and other land or sea checkpoints.
This raises issues for a range of stakeholders. Airports are worried about the impact that this would have on their ability to generate revenue through the restaurants, concessions and so on that they operate versus devoting precious space to queueing. Airlines, too, are concerned about their ability to verify identity and rights of entry when passengers board. And of course, border guards do not want to have to check yet another system that will make current processes even more inefficient.
So, as the member states make their plans, they should be thinking about how the experience of ALL end users is optimised and user-friendly. The question is how?
I think the key is, rather than looking at the Entry/Exit System through the lens of implementing pure compliance to legislative requirement from Brussels, member states should be looking at this as an opportunity to unlock value for all partners in the ecosystem; the travellers who are looking for a better experience, the carriers who want to reduce fines and repatriation costs, the border authorities who want better and more timely access to information.
For inspiration, they could look to other countries. In the US, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been tasked with implementing biometric entry and exit at border points. In response, the pilots they are running at, for example, Orlando airport are trying to see how they can involve the airlines and carriers to make it a seamless process. Rather than having a series of multiple checks, the pilots are testing whether travellers’ biometric information can be used to negotiate every subsequent transaction in the travel system – replacing passports, boarding cards and even hotel check-in. Accenture is working with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to investigate how to make travel seamless. In cooperation with airlines and airports in The Netherlands and Canada, a pilot is testing how a blockchain-enabled “Known Traveller” solution could empower travellers to share information held on their smartphones at every stage of their journey.
Those are just a couple of examples. There are many technologies available, from Kiosks, eGates to face recognition solutions that can identify individuals on the fly, that member states could deploy to help smooth the flow of people through the end-to-end entry/exit process at airports as well as sea/land borders. Utilising technologies such as artificial intelligence and analytics can improve risk profiling based on data sources such as Passenger Name Records (PNR) and Advanced Passenger Information (API), Interpol etc. and together with extended reality and modern data visualisation techniques thereby focus human law enforcement effort where it can make the most difference – and this merits consideration now. As well as the deadline to comply with the EU Entry/Exit legislation by 2020, member states should also seek to benefit from the multi-billion Euro funding that the EU is making available. As they develop their plans, they need to bring all relevant stakeholders on board to create the solutions that will maximise the possibilities for achieving seamless and secure entry and exit across the EU.
My son was born, in Belgium, in 2011, coincidentally the same year the aforementioned VIS went live. The shorter visa processing times mean he actually gets to see his grandparents every summer as they no longer find visiting the Schengen onerous and stressful!