Mon, 1 August 2022 at 5:00 pm
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…” These emotive words – or slight variations on them – have appeared on British passports since the first dark blue version was introduced in 1921.
With overtones of colonial might in the days of Rule Britannia, they were written perhaps more in hope than expectation. I don’t remember Brezhnev’s border guards, Ronald Reagan’s immigration officials or even the gendarmes at Calais being cowed into submission when I thrust my passport under their noses. Nevertheless, for generations of British travellers, those words have inspired confidence, enshrining the belief that we had a certain status in the world and that, if things did go wrong, our diplomatic might would be enough to sort it all out.
It wasn’t just the words that mattered. For many, the dark blue cover was symbolic of our national identity and this was fundamentally undermined in 1988 when the colour was altered to burgundy red to match that of the other EU member states. For practical purposes, however, the new British passport went from strength to strength. In 2010, it was ranked as the most powerful in the world. According to the Henley Passport Index, we could visit more destinations without a prior visa than any other nationality.
So has there been a terrible irony in the return of the dark blue version? From a traveller’s point of view, it is beginning to look like a rather diminished and problematic document. This year it plunged to joint-13th in the Henley Passport Index, below countries such as Singapore, Spain and Luxembourg. This hasn’t gone unnoticed among many British citizens. In the first four years after the 2016 referendum some 360,000 of us applied for EU passports – and that is just in the nine countries which revealed the data.
Much of the problem comes down to the new restrictions on our rights to visit our neighbours in Europe, but other issues have beset the blue booklet ever since it was first re-issued in 2020. In the first place, it has been a struggle to get hold of one. The extraordinarily long delays in issuing new passports have received widespread news coverage for more than a year now.
But, despite a big recruitment drive at the Passport Office, there has been no improvement in the time you have to allow for an application to be dealt with. The latest update on the Passport Office home page, which itself is three months old, warns that we should still expect to wait up to 10 weeks. This compares to what used to be a two- to three-week turnaround for the old burgundy EU version.
The situation hasn’t been helped by the extra demand caused by a quirk which hit British passport holders trying to visit the EU since January 2021. For the first year and a half of Brexit, an idiosyncrasy in the way that our passports were issued meant that some older versions didn’t meet the EU rules (rules which apply to visitors from all non-member countries, not just the UK).
The British government had, for several years, been issuing passports with an extra few months added to the overall 10-year validity. But the EU has a 10-year limit and also requires validity for at least three months beyond the date of your visit. So some British travellers were caught out – denied boarding by airlines and had holidays ruined as a result.
In theory, this anomaly was resolved in April when the European Commission said that member states could take a more relaxed approach. However, the decision can still be interpreted differently by different member states. And, if your passport is more than nine years old, you’d be wise to consider applying for a new one, or at least double check the latest situation.
But the biggest problem at the moment is that – despite the Brexit transition period ending more than 18 months ago – our passports still don’t work in the e-reading machines when crossing the border into the EU. It is this, combined with a shortage of border officials at Dover (where the French checks are done), that seems to have caused the huge tailbacks at the port recently.
Human operatives are needed because – unless we apply for a visa – we can now only visit for a total of three months in every six. Since the machines can’t yet register individual entry and exit, the only way of monitoring the post-Brexit restriction is via an old-fashioned ink stamp in your passport. Reports suggest that this takes about 50 per cent longer than using the machines (about 90 seconds compared with 58).
It isn’t only at Dover that there have been delays. This year, I’ve seen long queues for British passport holders on arrival at airports including Rome and Zurich, and also for departures at the Eurostar terminal in St Pancras. True, some airports are managing the situation relatively well. I had a reasonable experience at immigration in Athens the other day, for example.
And earlier in the year at Bergamo they got around the problem by stationing an official just after the machine gates – it seemed that because the passport had already been checked electronically, all he had to do was administer a stamp. The same tactic is being used to reduce delays for Britons arriving at major airports in Spain and Portugal.
But, as Dover has demonstrated, when things go wrong, they have the potential to go very wrong. And it doesn’t look as though the situation will improve generally until at least June 2023. That is the deadline (recently pushed back from this September because of software delays) for the introduction of a new EU “EES” IT system. This will enable the electronic readers to capture your name, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) plus the date and place of entry and exit. So there will be no need for a stamp in your passport any more.
Whether or not it actually speeds things up at Dover and other borders, or causes other problems remains to be seen, however. As we know, new technology does not always work quite as efficiently and seamlessly as promised. And even if it does, while these electronic readers might work ok at airports, there are concerns about what will happen at ferry ports. If occupants are required to get out of their vehicles in order to use the machines, then that will only add to delays.
And there is one final irony. When you do apply for your new document, in one sense it isn’t British at all. Unlike our old burgundy EU passports, which were produced in Gateshead by the British company De La Rue, the new version is made under a new contract with a French firm, Thales (which is partly owned by the French government), and they are printed in Tczew, Poland.