‘Betrayal’: UK passports to be made in Europe

Local colour: While most EU passports are burgundy, international ones come in a range of hues.

Should British passports be made abroad? That will happen from 2019, and many people are not happy about it. Passports are important documents, but their significance has changed over time…

“The irony is unreal.”

Pro-EU campaigner Eloise Todd spoke for many when she heard the news: after Brexit, British passports will probably be made in France. De La Rue, the British firm that currently produces them, reaches the end of its contract in 2019.

The UK government invited companies across Europe to apply for the next contract; Franco-Dutch firm Gemalto offered the lowest price, and won. The government stressed that taxpayers would benefit; the tabloids cried “betrayal”.

There is a bonus irony. In December, the government announced that the new passports will be blue, as they were before they turned burgundy to comply with EU standards. Brexiteers hailed this as a symbolic victory. “The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty,” said Prime Minister Theresa May at the time.

For all their symbolic power, passports as we know them are a fairly recent invention. The idea behind them, however, goes back to the Bible. For centuries, rulers would provide their subjects with documents that basically asked other rulers to guarantee the holder safe passage through their land.

In Britain, such requests were provided until 1794 by the monarch. They were written variously in English, Latin and French, and could be issued to foreigners too. But as few nations required visitors to show a passport, most Britons had no need for one.

Modern booklets, complete with photo and personal details, were only introduced in 1920, when the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations) standardised passports across the world. This is when the UK adopted the blue design, which was described by the League as “perfection itself”. The passports stayed blue until 1988.

Today, passports are an indispensable part of travel. As such, they have also become status symbols. Agencies regularly rank the world’s passports in terms of their “power”. A lot of thought goes into their design: for example, many ex-Soviet nations use red, the colour of communism.

Sacré bleu

“Betrayal” indeed, say some. People have every right to be patriotic, and a passport is the ultimate symbol of their ties to their country. The government understood this when it listened to Brexit voters and restored the old blue design. The fact that France will make British passports is not only bad for British jobs — it is an insult to British pride.

Calm down, reply others. Ultimately, passports are just a wad of paper. There are better ways to show your love for your country, such as rooting for your football team or being a good citizen. If anything, giving the job to France is a shining example of free trade, which was one of the main reasons behind the Brexit vote.

You Decide

  1. Should British passports be made abroad?
  2. Would a world without passports be a better place?

Activities

  1. A passport’s visa pages are often decorated with illustrations that represent the nation’s culture. Each design one page, then explain your design to the class.
  2. Write a two-page essay examining the following statement: “Economic sovereignty is not the same as political sovereignty.”

Some People Say...

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Samuel Johnson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The government could have opted to award the contract to a firm of its choice. Instead, it decided to auction the contract and pick the lowest bidder. Under EU rules, it was obliged to do this across Europe. De La Rue was one of the two unsuccessful bidders. The company has said that it will appeal; it refuses to confirm whether it will cut jobs if it fails.
What do we not know?
Exactly what the new blue passports will look like. Despite May’s talk of “sovereignty”, they must conform to international standards on size, security etc. If Britons want to keep their visa-free access to the US, the passports must also comply with American guidelines, on photo dimensions for example. Other design aspects, like the images printed on the inside pages, are up to the UK.

Word Watch

Franco-Dutch
The company is based in both France and the Netherlands. The bidding process is officially not finished, but the UK government has effectively confirmed that Gemalto won.
Lowest price
According to insiders, the move will save British taxpayers up to £120 million over the duration of the contract.
EU standards
The UK was not legally obliged to change to burgundy, and could have switched back to blue before Brexit. It went along with the EU for reasons of convenience and cooperation.
Bible
In the Old Testament, Nehemiah was an official in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes. The King issued him with a letter “to governors of the province beyond the river”, asking them to let Nehemiah pass safely on his way to Jerusalem.
Monarch
As British passports are officially granted by the Queen, she is the one person in the country — and the world — who does not need one.
Power
This is usually measured in terms of how many countries the passport lets one visit without a visa. Germany, Singapore and Japan are some of the most powerful; North Korea and Ethiopia among the least.