EU passport control delays are a preview of Britain's Brexit fate

The Brexiteers campaign for tougher controls and then complain about their consequences. 

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After last year's French and German terrorist attacks, the Brexiteers were loud in their calls for tougher EU border controls. But they turn out to have preferred the theory to the practice. Today's Daily Mail ("Shambles at EU airports") and Daily Express ("Now EU spoil our holidays") declare their outrage at the long delays British holidaymakers have faced in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Belgium

It's not Brexit which is to blame (that, of course, hasn't happened yet) but the UK's non-membership of the Schengen Zone. A new EU regulation which took effect on 7 April 2017 requires the passports of all those arriving and leaving the border-free area to be checked (rather than merely waved through). The details of passengers are compared against European databases to see if they pose a security threat. Though all travellers who leave the zone are affected, regardless of citizenship, the burden falls most heavily on Britons (the UK is the largest of the six EU members outside Schengen). 

The blame for the delays partly lies with EU member states. As EU Security Commissioner Julian King remarked: "It makes sense to check travellers against the EU-wide counter-terrorism and law-enforcement databases. There are more than 8,000 foreign fighters listed; more than 70 million individuals, criminals and others, and objects, such as lost and stolen passports, identified on these databases. Checking them systematically helps keep us all safer and more secure. This system of checks was proposed in 2015. It was agreed in 2016. We are now more than midway through 2017. National border agencies and airport authorities have had lots of time to prepare and put in place the necessary arrangements and staff.

But one could also blame the UK's non-membership of the Schengen Zone (which eurosceptics have long resisted). And the furore is a preview of Britain's likely fate when Brexit occurs. Having campaigned for restrictions on free movement in general, Leavers will soon be aggrieved by their particular application. If the British government, as promised, limits the right of EU citizens to live and work in the UK, those same limitations will apply to Britons. One can already envisage the outrage if, as threatened, the 1.2 million Britons living in Europe lose the right to live, work, study and enjoy visa-free travel in any EU country, while others face new obstacles. Then, as now, the Brexiteers (who want tougher border controls but shorter waits) will be complaining that they can't have their cake and eat it. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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