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School trips to Britain put at risk by EU passport rule change

This article is an on-site version of our Brexit Briefing newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every week

Brexit Briefing often tries to measure the impact of Brexit on industry, trade and the economy in numerical terms.

This week, for example, when the Office for National Statistics published its trade data, the British Chambers of Commerce observed that imports from the EU were £3bn lower than in July 2018, while UK exports to the EU were £1.7bn lower over the same period. 

Strip out the noise from Covid-19 years and — not exactly surprisingly — it turns out that making it much harder and more bureaucratic to send goods to the EU reduces trade volumes.

But trade frictions are not the only barriers that have been erected between the UK and its near-neighbourhood, and the impact of those barriers, including to the movement of people, are much harder to quantify and will take far longer to have visible effect.

One of these barriers is the decision, which comes into force on October 1, to insist that all travellers from the European Union and the European Economic Area should require a passport to enter the UK — just like everyone else from other countries.

The policy speaks to a determination not to recognise Europe as in any way privileged, or part of a cultural and legal tradition — so for immigration purposes an Italian is no different from an Indian, a German from a Ghanaian — geographical proximity counts for nothing.

That might seem a pretty minor change to UK border policy that simply levels the playing field with the rest of the world. 

But when you consider that many Europeans only have ID cards, with which they can freely travel around Europe, the requirement to have a passport to enter the UK will have a potentially significant and stultifying effect on EU-UK cultural exchanges. 

This is particularly true of school children who come to the UK in large groups from Europe for annual trips, often (until now, at least) using ID cards.

For non-EU nationals — an Afghan girl, say, living in Germany or France — who would normally need a visa to go to the UK the EU also created a “List of Travellers” scheme to enable non-EU children to travel with their group without a visa. That’s been stopped by the Home Office too.

In practice, and particularly because schools in Germany and France have a policy of “all go or none go” for school trips, this is likely to mean far fewer school trips. 

If you’re a school in Europe and you have kids that don’t have passports, perhaps from disadvantaged backgrounds, or non-EU kids who need visas, it’s a lot easier post-Brexit to go to Florence, Vienna, Madrid or Berlin than London, Canterbury, Oxford or Stratford-up-Avon.

The school travel industry has lobbied hard for under-18s at least to be exempted from the new rule, but to no avail.

A large group of French travel agents wrote to Boris Johnson last April warning of the effects of the move. France alone sends 10,000 groups a year — about 500,000 children — whose direct input into the UK economy is estimated at £100m. Germany sends another 7,000 groups.

They warned of a reduction in the number of school trips to the UK of “up to 50 per cent” as a result of the new entry requirements. Tourism industry losses aside, they also raised concerns about the “negative impact that such a decline in cultural and language exchanges will have on a young audience in the process of developing personal and professional skills that will be crucial for the future of our societies”. 

The Home Office cites border security as one reason for the change. But as Antoine Bretin, the youth stays director at the language exchange group Verdié Hello and cosignatory of the letter observed in exasperation to the Briefing, “you don’t get many terrorists travelling in school groups”.

UK politicians have also lobbied. In the Lords, the Labour peer Philip Hunt called the decision a “depressing advert for global Britain” that he felt to be “shortsighted . . . petty and mean-spirited”, but ministers were unmoved. The Home Office will not change its mind.

The only offer that the government came up with, after pressure from the industry, was the so-called Collective Passport, based on a 1961 Council of Europe Agreement which long predates the Schengen free-travel zone, and which no one seems to know how to use. 

The Home Office sets out the parameters of Collective Passports here but industry says that in reality, because no one has used this route for such a long time, it’s an empty vessel not a lifeboat.

Edward Hisbergues, sales manager at PG Trips Association which cosigned the April letter to Johnson, said he’d written to the French authorities every two weeks all summer but not received any reply. 

The Briefing asked the Home Office for details of how a collective passport would work, but they declined to provide them, noting only that several EU governments have said they will not recognise a collective passport issued by the UK.

The UK will, it seems, accept the passports but in the real world it’s not at all clear that this is a workable solution, says Susan Jones, the boss of Linguastay, an organisation that accommodates 10,000 European students a year in host families for four days at a time. 

“The gov.uk website says you can use a collective passport, but you can’t find out what the charges are, none of the agents know and the government is not used to issuing collective passports,” says Jones, who received yet another cancellation notice from an EU client this week. The school in question has decided to go to the Netherlands instead of to the UK.

The Home Office says it recognises the importance of cultural and education exchanges, but it is phasing out the ID cards because they are an “insecure” form of identification. “We have now left the EU and ended free movement, and this sets EEA citizens on the same footing as non-EEA citizens who cannot use national identity cards for travel,” says a Home Office spokesperson.

At this point it is impossible to predict the impact of this policy over the longer term. Cultural impacts, unlike the trade in goods and services, are much harder to measure; but people — just like trade — will tend to take the line of least resistance. 

We are now just 10 days away from Germany’s federal election and the Europe Express newsletter is following every twist and turn in the run-up to polling day. Sign-up here to receive the email every weekday morning in your inbox by 7am CET.

Brexit in numbers

The number of job vacancies in the UK rose above 1m for the first time on record according to ONS data published this week, putting further pressure on the government as a broad swath of industry continues to warn about shortages.

Politics is often about narrative as much as it is about hard facts, and while labour shortages have more complex causes than Brexit, the ending of free movement removes one of the longstanding pressure-release valves.

The Johnson government is fine with this — it believes that its points-based immigration policy will ultimately force the UK economy to become higher skilled and its workers better paid — but that does mean delivering on that side of the immigration promise to voters. 

As Kitty Ussher, the chief economist at the Institute of Directors tells my colleague Delphine Strauss: “The challenge for government is to put its money where its mouth is and demonstrate in practice how we can fill vacancies by investing in our domestic workforce in a post-Brexit world.”

And, finally, three unmissable Brexit stories

Boris Johnson has been lobbying for an audience with Joe Biden. When the precious White House photo call comes what should the US president tell the British prime minister about the situation in Northern Ireland, asks Philip Stephens. Biden’s message, he says, should be that of a candid friend if not of Johnson then certainly of the UK: take the deal.

Brexit is now largely a sunk cost, argues Chris Giles. It has given its proponents in London the levers of power they sought. But with power comes some responsibility and you cannot keep making lives worse with a purist notion of Brexit without people noticing. The UK and the EU are fully entitled to shout about the minor benefits that Brexit brings both sides but they would be wise to quietly continue with damage limitation on the big stuff, he says.

Just because you can, does not mean you should: a warning that Conservative ministers would do well to heed as they look to sever European Union rules in the wake of Brexit. Government plans to scrap an EU rule guaranteeing human checks on decisions made by computer algorithms would not only remove a vital safeguard against inbuilt machine bias; it also risks adding, rather than cutting, burdens on business, says the FT’s editorial board.

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