At this relatively early stage, there are numerous theoretical outcomes, but it could be a long time before any concrete details emerge.
What can be said for certain is that Brexit’s impact over border control will largely be determined by whether the UK remains within the European single market and customs union.
If, as many predict, citizens and services will no longer be able to move freely between Britain and the European Economic Area (EEA) nations, the implications for border control will be huge.
Border agencies on both sides of the Channel need to start thinking about the challenges they might need to overcome and how they might tackle them. Because, whatever the eventual outcome, it’s probable that significant time and resource will need to be invested to maintain safe and efficient borders, as Britain’s relationship with the EU changes forever.
The impact on people and goods
However the change to the border relationship between the UK and the EU manifests itself, it’s likely that there will be additional clearance approval requirements for citizens travelling in either direction.
Even if visas or other special security checks are not required, the relaxation of the existing soft border approach will necessitate extra scrutiny.
The regulatory shift means that if a “business as usual” approach is pursued, the process of clearing travellers through border control will be significantly slowed down. Particularly as the Airport Operators Association (AOA) claims that the UK Border Force has seen its budget cut by 10% since 2012, while passenger numbers have risen by 15%.
Combined with the possible increase in security checks after Brexit, these pressures will inevitably mean greater queues at the UK border and more pressure on border control agencies.
But it’s not just the movement of people that will have to deal with a post-Brexit world, the same challenges will apply to goods.
Without the tariff-free trade arrangements that come from being part of the single market and European Union Customs Union (EUCU), goods travelling between the UK and the EU after Brexit will be subject to greater, more time-consuming checks.
Consider Dover’s docks, which process around £120bn of traded goods every year – 17% of Britain’s total. The current frictionless process facilitated by EU membership (in which there is little paperwork to slow down vehicles carrying goods) means that 10,500 lorries can be processed every day.
Without significant changes to the systems and processes supporting border control, there’s no guarantee that such a smooth system will remain after Brexit.
We could be looking at longer waits for lorries crossing the border – something that agencies may not currently possess the infrastructure or manpower to handle.
There could be a similar domestic impact. The ‘invisible’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could become a hard border again if the UK leaves the EEC.
And with €60bn a year in trade generated between Britain and the Republic of Ireland, this could pose significant challenges. For example, food and drink production in Ireland increasingly involves activity on either side of the border, with a third of cow milk going from Northern Ireland into the Republic for processing into dairy products.
Having to implement a hard border would necessitate customs checks for transporting these goods and inflate the cost of the final product.
The challenge here would be the same posed by the wider Brexit scenario – how do border control agencies address the logistical challenge of creating and enforcing a hard border where one hasn’t existed for decades?
Using technology to make border control more efficient
It might sound like Brexit is going to create many challenges for border control. But it could also be a prime opportunity for governments and technology providers to work together and create better border control systems.
Technology will play a crucial role in helping border control agencies process goods and travellers effectively, while simultaneously ensuring that they do not let any high-risk individuals or illegal products in.
One of the measures that can be used to help this is greater analysis of the intent of people or goods moving across borders.
Using advanced analytics technology, border agents can examine a broad range of information to determine the actual (versus stated) intent of a traveller, parcel or shipment prior to issuing a visa, importation permit, or granting entry.
This solution in isolation could save a great deal of time at UK/EU land borders, where there is not usually any advanced warning that a traveller is arriving.
Just as it has for the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, who use a combination of technologies to scan passports or the license plates of approaching vehicles, so the border control agent has the necessary information before the traveller arrives at the clearance booth.
Even with borders at airports, machine learning can help speed up the clearance process – simply by analysing passenger information provided by airlines against a variety of databases and rulesets to determine whether a traveller is high or low risk.
The same can be done for goods, assessing the multitude of data provided for cargo to automatically clear low risk shipments and raise flags for those that are not.
The UK Border Force and agencies in a number of countries employ rules-based risk assessment solutions today, but the accuracy of such systems falls short of what will be needed to handle the volume and complexity challenges Brexit presents.
The answer lies in the use of artificial intelligence or predictive analytics algorithms that learn from experience and become more accurate over time.
A constantly changing global landscape
Since the dawn of civilisation, borders have shifted, changed, formed and reformed. The redefinition of the UK’s relationship with the EU is just the latest boundary fluctuation to result from the ebb and flow of politics.
The good news is, in such a constantly changing global environment, technology can help regulate and secure borders.
Because of the pressures that Brexit will inevitably place on border agency resources, there is an opportunity for governments on both sides of the Channel to pioneer innovative ways of controlling their borders.
The rest of the world will look to the UK and Europe to see how they utilise new tools to increase the efficiency and speed or clearing goods and citizens. Will they become an example of best practice for border technology? Time will tell.
• John Kendall is director of border and national security programme at Unisys.