Documents considered by the Committee on 6 January 2016 - European Scrutiny Contents

11   A uniform format for visas

Committee's assessment Legally and politically important
Committee's decisionNot cleared from scrutiny; further information requested
Document detailsProposal for a Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No. 1683/1995 laying down a uniform format for visas
Legal baseArticle 77(2)(a) TFEU; ordinary legislative procedure; QMV
DepartmentHome Office
Document Numbers(36954), 10314/15 + ADD 1/REV 1, COM(15) 303

Summary and Committee's conclusions

11.1  The proposed Regulation would make further changes to a Regulation adopted in 1995 establishing a uniform format for visas. The changes proposed are intended to improve the security features of visas so that they are less prone to counterfeiting and fraud. All Member States are bound by the 1995 Regulation. Since then, the legal base for adopting EU measures concerning the format of visas has changed. Under the revised legal base, the UK is not bound by any changes to the 1995 Regulation unless it decides to opt into them.

11.2  The proposed amending Regulation is subject to the UK's Title V (justice and home affairs) opt-in, meaning that the UK will only be bound by it if the UK opts in before the expiry of the three-month opt-in deadline or seeks to do so after the proposal has been adopted.[85] The deadline for notifying the UK's opt-in decision expired on 29 September. The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire) confirmed in his letter of 22 October that the Government had decided not to opt into the proposed Regulation "at this stage".

11.3  We last considered the proposed Regulation at our meeting on 28 October and requested a more detailed analysis of the risks and benefits associated with opting into the proposal or, as the Government has decided, not opting in but remaining bound by the previously amended 1995 version. We also asked the Minister whether the Government intended to play an active part in negotiations with a view to opting in once the Regulation has been adopted, and to indicate what changes would be necessary for the Government to consider recommending a post-adoption opt-in.

11.4  Whilst we note that most visas issued by the UK are for more than three months, and so are not subject to the 1995 Regulation, it nevertheless remains the case that the UK is under a legal obligation to comply with this Regulation whenever it issues short stay visas for three months or less. The decision to comply is not, as the Minister appears to suggest, primarily an operational matter. We ask him to provide details of the number of visas issued annually by the UK which are subject to the 1995 Regulation.

11.5  The Minister indicates that it might be possible to incorporate "additional safeguards" in the uniform format visa, without opting into the proposed amending Regulation. We ask the Minister to explain how this could be achieved, given that the purpose of the 1995 Regulation (as amended) is to establish common technical specifications and security features and any changes must be approved by a Committee of Member State representatives.

11.6  Pending further information from the Minister, and the update he has promised on the outcome of the Government's assessment of the risks and benefits of remaining bound by the 1995 Regulation or opting in (post-adoption) to the latest Commission proposal, the proposed Regulation remains under scrutiny.

Full details of the documents: Proposal for a Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No. 1683/1995 laying down a uniform format for visas: (36954), 10314/15 + ADD 1, COM(15) 303.


11.7  Our earlier Reports, listed at the end of this chapter, provide a more detailed overview of the proposed Regulation and the Government's position.

11.8  A uniform format for visas issued by EU Member States was introduced in 1995, based on Article 100c(3) of the then EC Treaty. At the time, it was envisaged that establishing a uniform format would pave the way to the harmonisation of visa policy which, in turn, would support the establishment of the internal market as an area without internal borders in which the free movement of people is ensured.[86] All Member States participated in the adoption of the 1995 Regulation.

11.9  The first substantial modification of the 1995 Regulation was agreed by the Council in 2002.[87] By that time, the UK had secured a Protocol to the EU Treaties ensuring that the UK would not be bound by EU measures concerning visas, asylum and immigration unless it chose to opt in. As the changes proposed were intended to improve the security features of the uniform format visa (incorporating a photograph into the visa sticker), the UK decided to opt in. By contrast, the UK did not opt into the second modification, agreed in 2008, as the changes largely affected Member States participating in the Visa Information System (VIS), an EU database processing data and decisions relating to applications for short-stay visits to the Schengen free movement area.[88] The UK does not participate in the Schengen free movement area and, as a consequence, cannot take part in VIS. The UK similarly does not participate in the other elements of EU visa policy, including the rules determining whether nationals of third countries require a visa to enter the Schengen area for short stays of up to three months.

11.10  The proposed Regulation would introduce a new design for the uniform format visa, with enhanced security features. In his Explanatory Memorandum on the proposal, the Minister noted that the UK had participated in the development of work to improve the security features, adding that "the security of the EU visa and the UK visa is a key strategy in tackling illegal migration".[89]

11.11  We agreed with the Government's assessment that its decision not to opt into the proposed Regulation would not make it inoperable for the other Member States — the test for determining whether or not the UK can be ejected from an EU justice and home affairs measure in which it already participates — and that, as a consequence, the UK's options are "restricted to opting in and using the new visa format, or staying out and continuing to use the 1995 version (as previously amended)". We considered neither option to be particularly palatable. On the one hand, the Government's decision not to opt in was based on concerns about the proposed design and the implications for "future visa strategy", yet continued use of the 1995 version would appear to expose the UK to the risk of fraud and counterfeiting which prompted the Commission to propose the latest changes to the design and security features of the uniform format visa. We therefore asked the Minister to provide a more detailed analysis of the risks and benefits associated with both options and to explain whether remaining bound by the previously amended 1995 version would prevent the UK from making any security improvements to the format of UK short-stay visas.

11.12  We considered that the Minister's letter left open the possibility of opting into the amending Regulation once it had been adopted. We asked him whether the Government intended to play an active part in negotiations with this objective in mind, and to indicate what changes would be necessary for the Government to consider recommending a post-adoption opt-in.

The Minister's letter of 10 December 2015

11.13  The Minister apologises for another delayed response. He explains that the 1995 Regulation establishing a uniform format for visas only applies to visas which are valid for up to three months. He continues:

"The vast majority of UK issued short stay visas are valid for stays of longer than this period and are therefore not covered by this Regulation. For those visas we are not compelled to use a particular vignette or even any at all. In the past, however, the UK has chosen to use the UFV for all the short stay visas we issue. This was mainly for operational reasons.

"The Home Office has already started work to consider in depth the risks and benefits of the two possible future options. The UK can opt in post adoption and use the revised design for all short stay visas, or if we choose not to adopt the new design, the UK could use a new UK style vignette for the majority of short stay visas (over 3 months) and consider what additional safeguards we can put around the old vignette where we are required to use that design.

"Whilst the risk and benefits are still being assessed, I am clear that the main consideration and guiding principle should be that the UK's border security is maintained."

11.14  The Minister says he will provide a further update on the Government's assessment of risks and benefits early in 2016. He adds:

"The Commission is working to a timetable of adoption in Spring 2016. At that point the two designs could be used in parallel, with a final phasing out of the old design 12 months later. Post-adoption as you know the UK has no fixed timetable for any opt-in decision, but our entry into the measure is not automatic. I undertake to consult you in the usual way if we take that view.

"The UK is participating in the negotiations for an improved design; this does not commit us to opting in post-adoption, but will allow the UK more options if our aim for a more secure, improved design, which is more acceptable to the UK, is achieved."

Previous Committee Reports

Seventh Report HC 432-vii (2015-16), chapter 10 (28 October 2015) and First Report HC 342-i (2015-16), chapter 40 (21 July 2015).

85   See Protocol 21 to the EU Treaties on the position of the UK and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice.  Back

86   See Regulation (EC) No. 1683/95. Back

87   See Regulation (EC) No. 334/2002. Back

88   See Regulation (EC) No. 856/2008. Back

89   See para 10 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum. Back

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