Our EU passports gave us travel ‘power’: now we can look forward to being also-rans

Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash
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You’re furloughed and it’s raining (again) in the UK.  You don’t fancy camping in a soggy field, and you can’t travel abroad without risking quarantine measures abruptly introduced to restrict movements on your return.  What to do? Well, if you like numbers and data you can still travel vicariously by spending a happy couple of hours on www.passportindex.org.

This website assesses every one of the world’s passports based on their power. Each country is ranked according to the number of countries that allow passport holders to travel visa-free (good), give a visa on arrival (not so good) or insist on an approved visa application before arrival (bad). The UNDP Human Development Index is used as a tie-breaker (otherwise lots of European countries would be equal first) and the result is Belgium is top of the Individual Passport Power Index closely followed by a string of EU countries. There are only two non-EU countries in the top ten: no surprises that it’s Switzerland and New Zealand. Likewise, predictably Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are assessed as having the least powerful passports in the world.

It’s easy to be casual about passports when you’ve got one of the powerful ones – the UK in 2020 ranking 16th, just above Japan: the world is as unequal in the power of its passports as it is in everything else.

Having a ‘weak’ passport means queuing for hours at foreign embassies to collect a form to allow you to even apply for a visa. After that there’s three months’ bank statements to be submitted as proof of funds for your trip, and another wait in a queue to be interviewed with intrusive questions about the reasons for your visit. It means suspicion and delay each time you show the passport at border control; even in my job travelling around East Africa, I’d end up waiting outside the airport having sailed through immigration on my British passport, while Kenyan, Tanzanian, Ugandan or Rwandese colleagues were delayed by excessive questioning.

If you think this is anecdotal, or that the international company I worked for had a dodgy recruitment policy, here are a couple of more general examples: a Kenyan passport-holder needs six weeks to apply for a visa for Ecuador; Nigerian women can’t travel to Thailand as tourists without showing proof of permission from their husbands and fathers.

So, a powerful passport is worth fighting for, and the burgundy-coloured EU British passport is one of them: how easy it is to travel, work and live in the rest of the European Union; think of all those countries in which you can take a job without lengthy permit applications, or of all those business trips when you find yourself looking in pity at the queue of non-EU passport holders at border posts as you whizz through immigration.

And yet even here, the United Kingdom didn’t take advantage of all the benefits offered by being part of Europe: we were one of the few EU members not to be part of the borderless Schengen Area created in 1995. Prosaically, lack of internal borders reduces costs of trade by between 0.42% and 1.59% according to the Centre for Economic Policy Research. More pleasingly, it means that when you live in Delft in the Netherlands – as I did in 2001-2005 (easy to do with an EU passport, of course) – on a whim you can go for lunch in Antwerp in Belgium after an uninterrupted 90-minute drive: no border posts, just a clear straight road.

It’s not that before the current pandemic other Europeans were travelling across borders every day (except when they’re one of the few with a place of work in another country). Indeed, by some estimates, up to 40% of EU citizens have never been outside their home country.

It also isn’t the case that the borderless Schengen area somehow means a loss of control when countries need it most: Greece sealed its borders to non-EU citizens and those from fellow Schengen area members Italy and Spain, before suspending flights from the United Kingdom in March this year. Even now, five months later, if you travel by plane from Belgium, Spain, Czech Republic or the Netherlands, you have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test for entry to Greece. When needed, Schengen members can still take decisions on which other country’s citizens to let in and under what conditions.

What standardised passports and the common customs area do represent, as well as the obvious convenience, is trust in other countries. You need to rely on another country within the EU to issue passports only to those who qualify for them. Other countries within the   protective Schengen ring must operate effective border controls to keep only undesirables out for your benefit and theirs. This international trust is a key foundation of trade and prosperity; at a time when trust is in short supply globally, it is to be cheered.

Now that we’ve left the European Union, we’re not just making travel more difficult for ourselves, we’re celebrating the fact with the reintroduction of the old “blue” passports. I’m not sure exactly when blue passports became the symbol of British freedom from the ‘tyranny’ of the European Union: was this a winning argument in the vote on 23 June 2016? Was it in the ‘Leave’ manifesto, or on the side of a bus? Maybe it was an afterthought – one in a long line of feel-good stories fed to the public, as the gap between those who wish we were staying in the EU and those who are overjoyed we are leaving becomes ever greater.

I don’t remember much at all about the old, pre-burgundy, passports, to be honest. I had one, of course: we all did, until they were phased out from 1988. They were bigger than the current passport, but too big for an inside jacket pocket?  And were they really blue? I vaguely remember they were black.

I do recall going to France on holiday with my parents and not discovering until we got to Dover that I’d left my passport at home over 200 miles away. Also, landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I forgot to ask for a temporary slip to be placed in the same passport when it received an Israeli entry stamp – thus making it useless for travel in much of the Arab world. Not happy memories.

The blue passports aren’t a good thing: they also mean we are likely to slip further down the next Individual Passport Power Index, though clearly nowhere near those countries miserably at the bottom. Indeed, many have recognised the weakening of the British passport, hence the frantic search for half-remembered Irish connections now that their passport is more powerful than ours.

We are a long way from being in the unhappy situation many non-European citizens find themselves, of course. But why celebrate making life more difficult?

Most British citizens will never experience the degree of suspicion and discrimination holders of ‘weaker’ passports experience every day. We should recognise and respect the privileges we had as members of the European Union; losing them is not just an inconvenience, it is something to mourn rather than celebrate.

Celebration is more than inappropriate: it’s disrespectful to those who have never had such privileges, and who never will.


Guy Maughling lives in Cheltenham


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