Wednesday, 29th January 2014
Frontier set for robot checks to meet Commission remit
by Brian Reyes
The Gibraltar and Spanish governments are set to invest in a high-tech transformation of the border in the coming months.
New equipment ranging from biometric scanners to face recognition technology will enable law enforcement officers on both sides to build a detailed, accurate picture of people and vehicles crossing from one side to the other.
The investment is in response to a recommendation by the European Commission to boost intelligence-led border controls in a bid to ease frontier flow while clamping down on illicit trafficking in tobacco.
The aim is to turn a ramshackle, often chaotic border crossing into what politicians on both sides have already termed “an intelligent frontier”.
The phrase was first used publicly at the weekend by Antonio Sanz, the Popular Party’s general secretary in Andalucia, who sketched out forthcoming changes on the Spanish side of the border during a visit to La Linea.
He said the new systems would “improve, modernise and perfect” existing border controls, adding that they would require “a very significant investment” that would be funded in part by the EU. He did not provide figures. Sr Sanz also rejected the assertion made repeatedly by Britain and Gibraltar that Spain was using the border controls as a political tool. He insisted that Spanish border controls were an EU obligation under Schengen rules.
But his comments drew a sharp response from Gemma Araujo, the mayor of La Linea, who said that what was needed was “a humanitarian frontier, not an intelligent one”.
She also questioned the scope of the investment, which she suggested went no further than “removing a 1950s hut and expanding a parking space.”
The Spanish Government has so far revealed little detail of its exact plans for the border.
But one Spanish source told the Chronicle that the Ministry of the Interior – which is leading on the project - intended to reform the frontier in line with the EU’s Smart Borders initiative.
The EU initiative, which has been praised and criticised in equal measure in Europe, requires Schengen countries to implement electronic systems to control external borders by 2018.
It consists of a Registered Traveller Programme that will allow certain groups of frequent travellers from “third countries” to enter the EU using simplified border checks.
It will also include an Entry/Exit System (EES), which will record the time and place of entry and exit of third country nationals travelling to the EU.
It is not clear at this stage what the practical implications of implementing the Smart Borders initiative at Gibraltar border will be for the many thousands of commuters who cross it daily, including British nationals from outside the Schengen area.
This week Gibraltar’s three Conservative MEPs – Ashley Fox, Julie Girling and Ashley Fox –pressed the European Commission to follow up on its technical visit to the border last year and provide a clear picture of the road ahead.
“We are now two months on from these conclusions and residents in Gibraltar are still suffering from unnecessary queues and random harassment,” the MEPs said in a question filed in the European Parliament.
“There seems to be little activity or desire to improve matters on the Spanish side of the border.”
“By contrast, the Gibraltarian authorities have already announced that they will carry out outbound tobacco checks in an effort to implement the Commission’s recommendations.”
The Tory MEPs want to know whether Spain has submitted any proposals to improve border flow and what steps the Commission is taking to monitor the situation.
They also asked what EU money had been made available to the Spanish authorities to improve the facilities and by what date the Commission expects to see progress on its recommendations. Finally, the MEPs asked whether the Commission would despatch a follow-up technical mission to the border and, if so, whether this would be carried out in secret.
GIBRALTAR MOVES TOO
Last night, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo – whose ministerial portfolio includes responsibility for immigration – said the Gibraltar Government was moving ahead swiftly with a number of initiatives following the European Commission’s findings.
The Gibraltar Government has already announced tougher tobacco laws and plans to check vehicles leaving the Rock for contraband.
This will include reforming the border loop area and, while the plans have yet to be finalised, will envisage the installation of barriers and creating lay-bys where Customs officers can carry out their work.
“The Government has written to the European Commission to report on progress in the implementation of the recommendations following last year’s visit,” Mr Picardo told the Chronicle.
“The letter sets out details of the intelligent frontier mechanisms that Gibraltar is putting in place.”
The Chief Minister would not be drawn at this stage on the detail of what those mechanisms might entail.
But he said they would assist in targeting people who were breaking the law.
“It will obviously be a huge resource in terms of intelligence-led law enforcement in the fight against drugs and illicit traffic in tobacco,” Mr Picardo told the Chronicle.