Richard North, 24/12/2017  

There is no let up in the publicity surrounding the strange case of the blue passports. The latest twist in the entertainment, though, is that the EU's procurement directive will still apply after we supposedly leave – as part of the "vassal state" transition package.

That opens up the possibility that the new documents may be produced in an EU Member State, much to the consternation of some of the "ultras". The irony though is that, even without the EU, the production contract would probably be caught by the WTO's Agreement on Government Procurement.

The application of this agreement is acknowledged by the UK government website and provides a classic example of the "double coffin-lid" phenomenon where global or regional agreements are implemented by EU law.

This we see with the EU's procurement directive 2014/24/EU which makes direct reference to the WTO agreement. And with the directive implemented into UK law by the 127-page The Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which will be caught by the EU Withdrawal Bill (once it becomes law), there will be no relief here.

Either way, the contract for new passports, when it is up for renewal, will have to be opened up to international competition. The government will have no choice in this matter and will have to abide by the rules. As to the style of the passport, apart from the colour of the cover, the UK has very little discretion as to what goes into the passport and how it is designed.

The need for passports was settled by international agreement through the Paris Conference in 1925, but through an accident of history, actual passport standards are determined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), through the 1944 Chicago Convention, set out in Annex 9 on facilitation.

The technical standards on passports are in fact legally binding for all United Nations members. In order for passports to be recognised by all other nations, they must also be certified as "compliant" by the ICAO as to technical standards, with special emphasis on the security attributes.

Currently, the EU handles such matters on behalf of Member States, to which effect it has a Memorandum of Understanding with the ICAO. This means that the passports of EU Member States which are "EU compliant" are automatically certified as a block, when the basic template is approved.

Once the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer be covered by this arrangement. Thus, alongside all the other things it will have to do, the UK government will have to make its own arrangements with IACO for submitting passport designs and getting them certified. Until that is sorted, there will be no global recognition of UK passports.

The irony of all this is that, after the official statement announcing the reintroduction of the blue passport, Theresa May on Twitter declared: "The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation".

Despite the Conservative Party website also parading the UK passport as "an expression of our independence and sovereignty", the facts of the matter are that very few aspects relating to the design and production of the new passports which will be decided independently by the UK.

Nevertheless, this should hardly be of concern. The passport is, after all, an international travel document, used to facilitate the movement of people throughout the world. It stands to reason that its format and physical parameters must be standardised and agreed by all nations, as part of a global system of mutual recognition.

What matters from the sovereignty perspective is the power to make the rules which determine who are awarded UK passports. And it is here that, when we do finally leave the EU, we may resume some limited degree of control, depending on the final resolution of the freedom of movement issue. In theory at least, we will no longer have to accept citizens of EU Member States who become entitled to UK citizenship after a period of residence here.

The resumption of the blue passport, therefore, is entirely symbolic, but rather than symbolising our independence – with the exception of one crucial point - it actually symbolises our interdependence.

The crucial point, of course, is the omission of the words "European Union" from the passport. That, in my view, was far more potent a symbol of the EU's subordination than the colour of the cover. And the fact that this is to go will symbolise our independence from the EU.

The interesting thing here, though, is when we look at the cover of the Norwegian passport, there is no mention of the EEA or the EU. Yet some of the naysayers, who so scorn the idea of the Efta/EEA option, argue that staying in the EEA means that we haven't really left the EU.

But if the right (or the power) to remove the words "European Union" and then to decide the colour of our own passports (which EU commentators say we could have chosen anyway, even as members) conveys our sovereignty and independence, what does the Norwegian passport say about the status of Norway?

And what should we infer from the Icelandic passport, the cover of which sports a shade of blue similar to that proposed for the new UK passport.

In passing, we should also note that Mr Farage (still without his knighthood) has been squeaking about how much he has hated the burgundy passport. Yet as an MEP he is also the bearer of an EU laissez passer which he has been happy to use when it suits him. Significantly, this passport-like document has a dark blue cover.

Perhaps we should not explore this matter further. Those with longer memories will recall that British tourist passports - which could be bought over the counter from post offices on production of a birth certificate – were coloured salmon pink. What did that say about our sovereignty?

Certainly, what this episode seems to say about our government is that it is more concerned about symbolism than substance. But the timing has been more than a little convenient. It has successfully distracted the media from the far more important issue of the transition proposals.

Even now, there is an absurd dispute about the cost of the redesign, with the claim that £500 million will be needed – actually the cost of the entire 10-year production contract. If the media had devoted a fraction of the resource expended on this to reporting and analysing the current Council negotiation guidelines, we would be having a wholly different debate.

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