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EU threatens tit-for-tat visa limits on Americans after US tightens law

London Guardian | August 8, 2007
David Gow

The European Union is threatening to impose tit-for-tat entry restrictions on all US citizens travelling to Europe in response to new American laws designed to strengthen security at airports and prevent would-be terrorists entering the country. US tourists can now travel to Europe without a visa.

Franco Frattini, justice and home affairs commissioner, is drawing up plans for an EU-wide system of "electronic travel authorisation" (ETA) similar to that written into US law by President George Bush late last week as part of new homeland security rules proposed by the 9/11 commission and endorsed by Congress.

The ETA requires tourists from 14 mostly west European states, including Britain, benefiting from the US visa waiver programme to register online and give details of their passport, travel plans and planned social and business meetings at least two days before departure. A similar scheme operates in Australia.

The new system has heightened fears about privacy protection as the EU and US already exchange information about transatlantic passengers and airline manifests, with several would-be travellers refused entry to planes at US insistence. It is also seen as a deterrent to business travel to the US and to tourism in general, which is down 10% in the US since 2000 while it is up 13% in Britain and 20% in France.

Mr Frattini, whose director general for justice and home affairs, Jonathan Faul, discussed a reciprocal ETA system with Paul Rosenzweig, US homeland security deputy assistant secretary, in Brussels on Monday, is to present initial plans to the EU's 27 interior ministers next month, his spokesman said yesterday. "A basic decision has not been taken yet," he said.

East European members of the EU are angry that their countries are not in the US visa waiver scheme and Mr Frattini wrote to Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary, in June demanding that all 27 member states take part "to ensure full reciprocal visa-free travel".

Mr Frattini added: "It is important to have established objective and clear criteria which, on the one hand, will give the US sufficient means to protect its national security and to combat illegal immigration and, on the other hand, enable all EU member states to join the visa waiver programme."

The commissioner's spokesman said: "We have a political reality to live with and we share the concerns of the US about terrorism and security. We face very serious terrorist threats ourselves."

Mr Frattini considered a European ETA scheme after the thwarted plot to blow up 10 transatlantic planes by UK-based terrorists a year ago. EU officials say they are open-minded about the benefits and disadvantages of a reciprocal ETA, which could also apply to non-US tourists. The Australian system is said to work well, using new technologies that could allow fast-track entry and exit procedures for frequent, trusted travellers such as business executives. "The question is whether it unnecessarily hinders legitimate travel or aids it or enables us to enhance security," said an official.

Mr Frattini has expressed concerns that other aspects of the homeland security bill signed by Mr Bush go too far. These include the enforced screening of all cargo on passenger aircraft within three years and the scanning for nuclear devices of all foreign container ships heading to the US.

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