Saturday, 23 December 2017

Remember, we're leaving a Passport Union

The Home Office have announced that on Brexit, British passports will revert to their 'iconic' blue. I don't much care for the chosen shade but the symbolism here is important. In so far as they exclude the words 'European Union', I rather agree with the Prime Minister that our new passport will be an expression of our newfound independence and sovereignty. It is the principle which counts, after all. Not the colour. The current version is above all else a reminder that we are citizens of a political union, and an update will be quite the opposite.

Having grown up with passports I always remember as being burgundy, a change of aesthetic will prove somewhat refreshing, even for its own sake. It was always the 'European Union' part which bothered me most, for its legal and political connotations. It does, I concede, symbolise the freedom to work and (in many cases) live in other EU countries, but it also to me captures our loss of national independence and forced homogeneity.

Remainers who believe the colour is important to us are missing the point. It is about imagery and what it means to be a British citizen, not an attempt to recreate a past era which will not return. In fact, as I recall, quite a lot of people currently in their 40s will remember that many past passports were black and not blue, and this subgroup of Leavers aren't crying out for a black passport because it simply doesn't matter to them. The cost, too, is not an issue. The timing of the redesign has nothing to do with Brexit. The cycle is set at five years for security reasons and was approaching regardless.

But beyond the issue of what the passport represents, there is a wider and much more important point to be made about EU passports. The EU is not just a Customs Union, it is also a Passport Union, complete with standardised protocols covering the recognition of third country passports and additional travel documentation specific to each individual country. By third country, of course, we are referring to non EU (and EFTA/EEA) nationals. Switzerland, through bilaterals, does not count.

The basis for the Passport Union came shortly after our entry into the EEC, at a European Council meeting in December 1974. The then heads of government agreed: "A working party will be set up to study the possibility of establishing a Passport Union and, in anticipation of this, the introduction of a uniform passport. If possible, this draft should be submitted to the Governments of the Member States before 31 December 1976. It will, in particular, provide for stage-by-stage harmonization of legislation affecting aliens and for the abolition of passport control within the Community."

A further Council meeting in June 1981 "requested that the possibility of creating a Passport Union and, in advance, the introduction of a uniform passport, be examined", with the intention "to promote any measures which might strengthen the feeling among nationals of the Member States that they belong to the same Community." Basic parameters were here outlined concerning the inclusion of languages and personal information, a serial number and the date by which the harmonised passports were to be introduced.

The Passport Union was then updated by a further resolution in June 1982 which better clarified the physical nature of the passports, including watermarks, page-specific lamination and, of course, cover and page colours. The resolution says "The colour of the cover of the passport introduced by each Member State is as close as possible to RAL standard 4004 (Bordeaux red - violet) laid down by the German Standardization Committee." This appears, therefore, to be a recommendation. In 1995, after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (which saw the EEC become the EU) the words 'European Community' were replaced with 'European Union'.

Alongside the harmonisation of Community passport standards was developed strict criteria for the recognising of international passports and relevant additional travel documents. This is where Brexit makes things a little trickier than just fussing about the colour of a cover. Assuming the UK leaves the Single Market and therefore becomes a third country, it will formulate the design of new passports in accordance with the International Conference on Passports, Customs Formalities and Through Tickets'. Also known as the Paris Conference.

This League of Nations agreement was signed to outline agreed standards which would facilitate international passenger travel. Annex I provides us with passport design specs and information requirements, still used today as the basis for their production. The Conference, though, has nothing to do with a nation state's right to establish distinct criteria for the recognition of travel documents as regards nationals from other countries. We have but a uniform format for design and standards for diplomatic passports but individual states retain the right to choose which documents they recognise.

In the case of the EU, a list has been compiled which highlights recognised travel documentation accompanying nationals from third countries. The list was established in conjunction with Decision No 1105/2011/EU and can be seen here. For a third country national, their ability to enter the European Union relies on the carrying of a document which appears on the list. This doesn't seem too complicated a concept to me. Notice that the UK is not on the list because, as an EU member, it is not a third country.

How this list relates to the UK in future will depend upon the terms of withdrawal. My gut feeling is that we will not leave the EEA even after the transition period, in which case we will not be a third country. But it is certainly a possibility, and in such a case we would have to join the list in some fashion. In such an event, the issue would be when and how this would be clarified. EU member states contribute to the list by informing the Commission of what they are and are not prepared to accept as valid travel documentation.

If the UK becomes a third country, member states will need to collaborate on what documentation they recognise as acceptable from British nationals entering their territories. It is entirely possible that this is agreed upon within the transition period. I can't know for sure because there is no Brexit-like template or case study with which to work. It is largely speculation at this stage. What will complicate matters is a scenario in which visas are reintroduced, given our free movement red line. If this is the case, the terms under which visas are issued will require extensive consideration.

Transitional arrangements, whereby current passports and documents are recognised and phased out into a new regime, will probably be necessary. Other documents, like repatriation certificates and refugee travel papers, may also need to be factored into discussions. I don't mean to bring doom and gloom to an otherwise lighthearted discussion about passports, but reality will need to be engaged with one way or another. And of course, like so many of our approaching concerns, this issue simply disappears on retention of EEA membership.


  1. I lament the loss of the words European Union and I hope to obtain German citizenship in order to keep those words on my - burgundy - passport.

  2. I rather agree with the Prime Minister that our new passport will be an expression of our newfound independence and sovereignty.... then why are you'll even begging for a transition please leave asap and enjoy your newfound independence and sovereignty.

  3. There isn't really a passport union, in that the EU doen't have a common passport. (A few optional, cosmetic standardizations are not the same as a common passport.)

    However, to the extent that by passport union you mean something analogous to the CET of the customs union, that is provided by the Schengen acquis, the relevant parts of which the UK does not take part in. You see that in the preamble to Decision 1105/2011/EU, which states:
    "This Decision constitutes a development of the provisions of the Schengen acquis in which the United Kingdom does not take part, in accordance with Council Decision 2000/365/EC of 29 May 2000 concerning the request of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to take part in some of the provisions of the Schengen acquis(7); the United Kingdom is therefore not taking part in its adoption and is not bound by it or subject to its application."

    Therefore, to the extent that there is an EU passport union, the UK is not leaving it, because it was never part of it.

    (Your main point may simply have been that, even outside the EU passport union, the UK retained a privileged position vis-à-vis that passport union by virtue of its being an EU member state. That is a different point from that suggested by the article title however.)

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