Goodbye, cruel world: visas for holidays after Brexit?

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS (April 25, 2016)

by Steve Peers

Until yesterday, I have consistently argued that the prospect of British citizens being subject to visas for short-term visits to the EU after Brexit was highly remote. In fact, I even told off some ‘Remain’ supporters who suggested that this might happen. EU policy is consistently to waive short-term visa requirements for wealthy countries (like the USA, Canada and Japan) as long as those countries waived short-term visa requirements for all EU citizens in return. I couldn’t imagine that it was likely that anyone on the ‘Leave’ side would wish to advocate short-term visa requirements for EU citizens visiting the UK after Brexit, thus damaging the British tourist industry and leading to a reciprocal obligation for UK citizens to get visas for short visits to the EU.

Incredibly, I was wrong on this. Yesterday, Dominic Raab, a senior figure on the Leave side, suggested that the UK might want to introduce visas for EU citizens after Brexit, and accepted that UK citizens might be subject to visa requirements for visits to the remaining EU in turn. It can’t seriously now be suggested that it’s ‘scaremongering’ to consider that this might become UK policy after Brexit – unless there’s such a thing as ‘self-scaremongering’ by the Leave side.

Let’s be clear about this. The idea of short-term visa requirements after Brexit is utterly and profoundly stupid. It is by no means a necessary consequence of Brexit, and would cause the maximum possible damage to UK businesses and the ordinary lives of British citizens who seek to visit the EU after Brexit, with little or no security benefit in return.

Background: EU visa policy

As an EU Member State, the UK allows short-term entry to EU citizens without a visa, as well as longer-term free movement of people – although the latter issue is severable from short-term visas. The reverse is also true, of course: simplifying the leisure, family and business visits of millions of British citizens to the EU every year. While there is an earlier treaty from the Council of Europe (a body separate from the EU) which abolishes visa requirements between European states, the UK is not a party to that treaty – and presumably would not become one under Raab’s plans.

The EU has agreements on free movement of people with Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, but it seems clear from official statements by the Leave side that the UK would not sign up to these after Brexit. But as I said, short-term visa waivers are a severable issue: the EU does have reciprocal short-term visa waiver treaties with a number of non-EU countries, as well as a unilateral policy of waiving short-term visa requirements for other wealthy countries who reciprocate. Therefore, all it would take for British citizens to retain the visa waiver for short-term visits to the EU after Brexit would be a British government policy not to impose short-term visa requirements on EU citizens, or a UK/EU treaty to this effect. This seemed highly likely – until Raab’s rant.

The EU decides visa policy as a bloc, so there is no possibility that the UK could do separate deals on short-term visas with individual EU countries. As an exception, Ireland (like the UK at present) has an opt-out from the EU’s visa policy, so the UK and Ireland could retain their separate Common Travel Area arrangements – if they wished to. It’s not clear if Raab also wants to impose visa requirements for Irish nationals (which might also then be reciprocated). If that happens, then border controls would have to be reimposed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, as some on the Leave side have already called for (though others have taken a different view).

EU visas: the legal framework

The EU (apart from Ireland) has a standard short-term visa policy, which entails issuing ‘Schengen visas’ valid for all the Schengen states.  So in legal terms we know what the impact would be of the EU imposing visas on British citizens. The basic rules are set out in the EU visa code, although a few EU countries (Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia) don’t apply that code yet as they are not yet fully part of Schengen. While the Schengen system currently has many well-known problems as regards border control, this has not affected Schengen visa policy, and there is no reason why it would do.

To get a Schengen visa, the visa code requires an application at a consulate, although in practice the applications are often made through a private service provider. Applications can be made up to three months before the date of travel, or six months for multiple-entry visas. Applicants need to provide fingerprints, except for children under twelve and some other limited exceptions. They must also provide documents supporting the reason for their travel, obtain medical insurance and pay a fee of €60 per applicant, along with an extra fee if the applicant uses a private service provider. The fee is reduced to €35 for children between six and twelve, and waived for younger children, as well as pupils and teachers on study trips, researchers and representatives of NGOs. It may be waived in a small number of other cases; but it is always payable for tourist or business trips.

Most applications for Schengen visas are accepted, but applications are scrutinised for subsistence and intention to return, so it may be more likely that unemployed or low-waged British citizens find their visa applications refused. Any rejections will be registered in the EU’s Visa Information System for five years, which may make it less likely for a future application to be accepted. Usually a visa is valid for a period of three months over the next six months, but it is possible to get a multiple-entry visa (valid for several trips over a five year period) if there is a proven need to travel frequently. Visas can’t usually be obtained at the border, so British citizens would have to apply for a visa at least several days in advance to be sure of being able to travel. Without a visa, they would be denied boarding planes, trains or ferries, due to the EU law on carrier sanctions.

Back in 2014, the Commission proposed amendments to the EU visa code. They would, for instance, simplify the rules on getting multiple-entry visas, and allow for earlier applications. But such visas would still not be standard. Recently, both the Council and the European Parliament adopted their positions on this proposal, and so it will likely be agreed later this year. I’ve blogged separately on the main changes that the Commission proposed, as well as the chance to add rules on humanitarian visas, and on the specific proposals affecting UK citizens’ non-EU family members. But if the new code ultimately applies to all British citizens, its impact will be obviously be much greater.

The EU has signed some treaties on visa facilitation with non-EU countries. These treaties don’t waive the visa requirement, but they reduce the application fee and simplify the process. Of course they are reciprocal – the UK would have to cut the fees and simplify the process for EU citizens applying for short-term visas to visit the UK too.

Practical consequences: the unbearable madness of visa requirements

There’s no doubt that visa requirements reduce travel for tourism, business and other purposes. There are detailed estimates of the scale of the economic impact in a reportdrawn up for the Commission before it proposed the revised visa code. Think of it at the individual level: if there’s no visa facilitation treaty, a British couple with two teenagers would have to pay an extra €240 for a family holiday in the EU in visa application fees, with fees often paid to service providers on top. Even with a visa facilitation treaty like the one with Ukraine, the family would pay €70 in fees (€35/adult, under-18s exempt from fees), and again possibly service providers.

Raab argues that all this is justified on security grounds. Is it? First of all, the vast majority of terrorist (or other) offences in the UK are committed by British citizens. But some foreign visitors do commit crimes. How best to screen them out? The basic problem is that imposing a visa requirement doesn’t, in itself, increase our capacity to determine if a particular individual is likely to pose a threat. It simply, in effect, moves the decision on entry in time (to a date before arrival) and space (away from the border to a consulate – although individuals will still be checked at the border to ensure that there is a visa in their passport). The best way of knowing if a particular individual is a threat is by checking the available data.

That information is easy to find if the visa applicant has previously committed a crime in the UK, because in that case there ought to be a criminal record accompanied by an entry ban. But in this scenario, the entry ban information should in principle not only be available to consulates considering a visa application, but also to border guards deciding on entry at the border. So the visa requirement adds nothing. Nor does it add anything as far as EU citizens are concerned: the EU citizens’ Directive allows the UK to impose an entry ban on EU citizens who have committed serious crimes; and the UK can (and does) refuse entry to EU citizens at the border.

What if the visa applicant has committed a crime in another country? Whether people have to apply for a visa or are checked at the border, there is no general access to other countries’ criminal records. However, the UK does have access to some relevant dataas an EU Member State. Last year, it gained access to the Schengen Information System, which includes information on wanted persons, including some terrorist suspects. From 2012, the EU system for exchange of information on criminal recordswas set up (known as ECRIS: the European Criminal Records Information System), and the EU Commission recently reported that it had greatly improved the flow of information on this issue. The ECRIS law provides for criminal records to be exchanged more easily as regards a country’s own citizens (so we now have more information on UK citizens who have committed crimes abroad). Furthermore, the UK opted into the newly adopted EU law on passenger name records.

These laws don’t provide perfect security, of course. Not all terrorist suspects’ names appear in the Schengen Information System, for instance. The passenger name records law is likely to be challenged on human rights grounds, since it gathers information on all passengers, not just suspects. The criminal records law was unable to stop a tragic killing two years ago, because British police unfortunately did not ask another Member State about the killer’s criminal record (on the basis of a separate EU law) when they had the opportunity. As I suggested at the time, it would be desirable to provide for automatic circulation of the criminal records of EU citizens who have been convicted of very serious crimes, if they have been released from prison, so that they can be stopped and validly rejected from entry at the border.  The upcoming amendments to the Schengen Information System would be an opportunity to do this.

But how would Brexit, with or without a visa requirement, improve this situation? It would not give the UK any more access to EU databases, or to other Member States’ criminal records systems; indeed, it might mean less access. The EU has not extended ECRIS to any non-EU countries; the Schengen Information System has only been extended to those (like Norway and Switzerland) that are fully part of Schengen. The EU has some treaties on exchange of passenger name data with non-EU countries, but this policy is being challenged on data protection grounds in the EU court.

More broadly, the EU court has ruled in the Schrems case that personal data can only be transferred to non-EU countries that have data protection law ‘essentially equivalent’ to EU law. The UK would have to commit to continue applying a law very similar to EU law, or risk disruptions in the flow of personal data – affecting digital industries as well as exchange of data between law enforcement authorities. This restriction can’t easily be negotiated away, since the case law is based on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which has the same legal effect as the Treaties. The UK’s compliance with the EU rules would almost certainly be challenged in practice: see by analogy the Davis and Watson case already pending before the EU court. Outside the EU, the effect of a ruling that the UK did not comply with the rules would be a potential disruption of the flows of personal data.

One final point. Let’s remind ourselves that the UK already allows nationals of over fiftynon-EU countries to visit for a short period without a visa. So obviously we have found a way to reconcile the possible security threat this might pose with the needs of the UK economy. Why should that be so difficult to do as regards EU countries after Brexit? The mere existence of that policy anyway creates a loophole: any EU citizen with the dual nationality of one of those non-EU states (or perhaps Ireland) would be able to visit the UK without a visa anyway. Or is the intention to require a visa for everyone?

Of course, this loophole would work the other way around too. As a dual citizen of the UK and Canada, I could still visit the EU visa-free on a Canadian passport. So could any other British people who are also citizens of a Member State, or a non-EU country on the EU visa whitelist. But many others (including my family, for instance) could not. Let’s conclude on the utter absurdity of this: a British citizen contemplating the use of a Canadian passport to visit the European Union. Is this really the vision of an open, liberal, global United Kingdom after Brexit that the Leave side want people to vote for on June 23rd?

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