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How will a no-deal Brexit affect Brits travelling to Europe?

UK nationals wanting a week in the sun should probably arrive at the border with plenty of food, water, patience, and a good book for a long wait at passport control.

There is much to fear from a no-deal Brexit: from food and medicine shortages to a recession and increased energy prices. With potentially life-threatening consequences looming on the horizon, our ability to travel to and from the EU feels as though it should be the least of our worries.

Yet a no-deal Brexit on 31 October would fall in the middle of the half-term break for many of the UK’s schoolchildren. As the Department for Education cracks down on families holidaying in term time – last year saw a 93 per cent increase in the number of fines issued – many will have long ago booked holidays for this particular week.

With UK citizens likely to overnight become “third-country nationals”, ie of a country without any agreement with the EU, will those who are Europe-bound for the school holidays be affected?

John Keefe, the spokesperson for Getlink, the company behind the Eurotunnel, thinks not – although his reasoning is less than reassuring. “Most half-terms are finished by then as far as we're concerned,” he says, suggesting that since Brexit would fall on a Thursday, most British holiday-makers will be nearing the end of their week away and only need return from the EU.

This is significant because there will be no change in procedure for UK-bound passengers on the French side of the channel tunnel, Keefe claims. “The UK is not a member of the Schengen group of countries, so has always had a very strict immigration control system,” he explains. “The UK has always had 100 per cent passport control at its frontiers.”

For those on this side of the Channel headed for Europe, however, Keefe admits the impact is less certain. “It appears that the French are likely to be maintaining the same approach [as today],” he says. “But the risk remains if there's a very antagonistic no-deal separation that could change.

“At the moment, there's an agreement that British passport holders are controlled at the same level as a Schengen passport holder… [but] there is a risk that if we come out without a deal, that the controls could be more substantial.

Should this worst-case Brexit come to fruition at the end of this month, it would not immediately pose a problem, Keefe claims, explaining that there is a quiet period in passenger travel between the end of the British half-term and the start of the busy Christmas period.

“If [the controls] were more substantial on low levels of traffic, it wouldn't really have an impact. But if they went up to 100 per cent control outbound; at Christmas holiday getaway, that's when there would be a significant impact on passenger traffic.”

Steve Peers, the author of Brexit: The Legal Framework for Withdrawal from the EU or Renegotiation of EU and a professor of law at the University of Essex, explains how this impact on passengers might come about. 

“One thing that will change is that there should in principle at least be stamping of passports and asking people a couple of questions about their intentions, in the same way you get if you visit Canada or the US,” he says.

“So even if it only takes half a minute per person, that might well slow things down when we're talking about a whole ferry or flight full of people, or after the Eurostar people going via St Pancras, being checked.

“That's still a slower process, and with 300 people in one go, you could easily get a queue and then the next plane arrives, and the next plane and so on.”

Peers’s worries are echoed by the European Tourism Association, which estimates that additional checks will add an extra 90 seconds for each UK passport holder arriving into an EU country. This, when applied to a single Ryanair flight of UK passengers arriving in an airport with a single passport control desk, could take nearly five hours.

Likely to be worst hit is Spain’s Alicante airport, where 43 per cent of arrivals are from the UK, says consumer group Which?. In a no-deal Brexit, the airport would reportedly face an additional 201 hours of immigration checks every single day.

Brexiteers may cry scaremongering, but these statistics are reflective of the government’s own Operation Yellowhammer papers, which were released last month and detail the reasonable worst case scenario of a no-deal Brexit. 

In this eventuality, the government expects increased immigration checks and passenger delays at St Pancras, Folkestone and Dover, and warns that “it is likely that delays will occur for UK arrivals and departures at EU airports and ports”, although this is “dependent on the plans EU Member States put in place to cope with these increased immigration checks”.

But while UK nationals in dire need of a week in the sun should probably arrive at the border with plenty of food, water, patience, and a good book for a long wait at passport control, they shouldn’t be overly deterred.

This is because it won’t be tourists who are worst affected, but freight drivers, stresses John Keefe. He claims that, at least as far as passenger travel is concerned, the channel tunnel is prepared for the worst case, and has in place the extra staff and infrastructure necessary to deal with any post-Brexit changes.

Meanwhile in Europe, a handful of airports are reportedly planning specialist passport lanes to continue to provide fast-track service for Brits. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa earlier this year confirmed this to be the case at a number of Portugal’s airports, whether or not an exit deal is reached, on account of UK nationals representing 20 per cent of all tourists to the country.

Steve Peers, too, says: “people who are just going on holiday should be fine… the EU already has a law that says they won't need a travel visa. The people who might have more trouble are the people who would be working in the EU.”

It’s true that the EU has waived the need for Britons to obtain a visa to travel to the EU, even in a no-deal scenario. This will allow UK citizens to stay in the EU for up to 90 days in a 180-day period, provided they are not working or studying.

This, however, will change sometime around 2021, when nationals from visa-exempted countries will need to seek authorisation to enter the EU through the new European Travel Information and Authorisation System. Individuals will be quizzed on their criminal record and any trips to conflict zones, and authorisation will cost €7 and be valid for three years.

But while this will allow UK nationals to continue to holiday in Europe with relative ease, there will still be certain criteria that they must meet beforehand. The UK government advises that after Brexit passports must have at least six months left to guarantee travel; any less and you could be turned away at the border.

With apparent freedom comes a loss of free medical care; Britons’ European Health Insurance Cards will likely no longer be valid following a no-deal Brexit. According to research by Bupa Global, the average cost of breaking a leg while holidaying in France is £3,086, in Italy it’s £5,327, and Germany £5,465. Travellers are recommended to take out health insurance, lest face a hefty fee.

There will also be additional costs for UK drivers in the EU. It is likely that UK driving licences will no longer be recognised after a no-deal Brexit, meaning that in many member states it will be necessary to purchase an International Drivers Permit – at a cost of £5.50 – before travelling to the country. Those who are driving their own cars to the continent must ensure they have a GB sticker, and a green card from their insurance company, which the government warns may take up to a month to obtain.

But while UK citizens will be able to travel, their pets may no longer be able to join them. After Brexit, UK pets will no longer be eligible for the pet passport scheme, which allows them to travel freely within the EU. They will instead need to be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies, and blood-tested before travel – in a process that the UK government advises may take up to four months. 

It seems that despite insistences from various travel companies, holidaying in the EU under a no-deal Brexit is going to become harder, with Brits required to jump through a number of additional hoops that will cost them both time and money. 

A government spokesperson declined to comment on any difficulties in travelling to the EU following a no-deal Brexit, but instead insisted that efforts are being made to reach a deal. They said: “The government is working with energy and determination to secure a new deal with the EU. Talks with the Commission are intensifying and we are having detailed discussions on our proposed solutions. However, if it is not possible to reach a deal we will leave with no deal on 31 October.”

But with Boris Johnson’s negotiating team slashed to just a quarter of its size under Theresa May, and reports that EU officials in Brussels are baffled by the lack of progress from the new Prime Minister, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath for a deal just yet. Brits are seemingly hurtling towards a no-deal Brexit; one where we might leave an airport exhausted by queues and bureaucracy, with the sense that we have truly earned our holiday.

> This piece is from our Know Your No Deal series on the different ways a no-deal Brexit will impact the UK

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.