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British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly urges government cooperation to maintain benefits of Common Travel Area

Added 5-Jul-2016

The European Affairs Committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly has today released a report into visa systems within the EU and how they affect the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The report highlights the benefits of the Common Travel Area (CTA) and other measures such as the British Irish Visa Scheme, and urges joint co-operation to ensure that the CTA continues to operate in the event of the UK leaving the EU. The Committee also underline the role the Common Travel Area has played historically in supporting British-Irish relations and also welcomes the good cooperation that exists between British and Irish officials on the sharing of information and border security at entry and exit points.

On launching the report, Vice-Chair of BIPA, Andrew Rosindell commented:

“During this week’s meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I have been struck by the willingness of members from both nations to work hard to maintain and develop the good relations that have been built between the UK and Ireland. In recent years we have seen co-operation on visa issues yield a boost to tourism and the economy. Such cooperation has also played an important role in maintaining border security.

“Following the outcome of the recent EU referendum in the UK, we urge both governments to continue to work together to ensure that the Common Travel Area can be maintained, and I am pleased that we have already seen an indication that this may happen. As the process for the UK leaving the EU begins this must be a priority for both nations. For our part, BIPA will continue to explore the issues that arise due to our shared land border which play an important role in maintaining British-Irish relations.”

Download a copy of the full report herehere.

Main Findings

The Committee was pleased to see governments within the Common Travel Area working together to ensure the security and integrity of borders. Officials in both the UK and Ireland had a reassuring pragmatic and thorough approach to border checks. However, there may be merit in considering the level of resources allocated to smaller entry and exit points to ensure the right balance is struck between security, checking of all passengers to identify people travelling illegally (as distinct from CTA, EU/EEA and visa holding citizens) and the efficient operation of the CTA.

The Committee believes that the introduction of the British Irish Visa Scheme has been a positive development, in particular regarding the promotion of tourism. It therefore encourages the governments of the UK and Ireland to complete the formal evaluation of the Scheme as soon as possible so steps can be taken towards its further expansion. 

Whilst acknowledging that such a scheme may not be universally appropriate, the Committee recommends that the Scheme is expanded to other suitable countries. As noted above, this will not only benefit tourism and the economies of the UK and Ireland, but also mutual border security through the enhanced sharing of information, collection of biometric data and background checks which in turn have benefits to the wider security of the CTA.  

The Committee welcomes the positive effect the Irish short stay visa waiver programme has had on tourism to Ireland. It therefore recommends that the programme, which is currently due to run to October 2016, should be further extended and consideration should also be given to its permanence. The Committee therefore welcomes the Irish Government’s indication to us that such an extension is planned and calls for it to confirm arrangement for that extension as soon as possible in order to ensure certainty for people with UK visas planning to travel to Ireland after October. 

The Committee acknowledges that to date the interests of both the UK and Ireland in terms of border security, migration and, most importantly, the continued successful operation of the CTA may have been best served by not being members of the Schengen Area. Furthermore, the limited evidence received has not indicated a clear negative impact upon either country of not being a member of that Area, either in terms of tourism or on their respective economies. 

The Committee welcomes the informal cooperation of both governments with Schengen countries on the formation of borders and visas policy through the Council of the EU and more generally through the sharing of data and other relevant information. While the recent vote by the UK to leave the EU will inevitably affect the terms of its engagement through the Council of the EU, It is important that both governments continue to play an active part in Schengen and other visa and border related discussions and negotiations at the EU level in order to ensure the interests and views of both countries are reflected in future EU rules and cooperation related to borders and visas. 

The Committee believes that examples of cooperation with other individual EU member states on the administration of visas and collection of biometric information, for example with Belgium in China, is welcome and can serve to enhance border security and promote tourism. Additional cooperation of this kind should therefore be actively explored by both governments. 

The Committee welcomes the fact that, prior to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, both the UK and Irish governments had expressed a desire for the continuing operation of the CTA regardless of the outcome. Although the Committee has only held brief discussions with both governments on this issue, given the economic benefits to both countries of the Area, its historical significance, and the fact its operation dates from before both countries’ membership of the EU, the Committee believes there are likely to be strong arguments for its retention.

The extent of these changes will very much depend on the outcome of the ensuing negotiations, both between the UK and EU member states on the process for the UK leaving the EU, and between Ireland and other EU member states on the implications for EU borders and visas policy of the UK leaving the EU. However, as already noted, the Committee is not currently in a position to draw clear conclusions or make recommendation on the implications for the CTA of the UK leaving the EU. The Committee therefore hopes to explore this issue in more detail as part of any future inquiries it holds on the wider implications for British-Irish relations of the UK’s vote to leave the EU. 

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