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Ridge plans security links with Brussels

By Raphael Minder in Brussels
FT/September 19 2004

The US administration is preparing to install a senior official from its Department of Homeland Security in Brussels as a sign of its willingness to improve counter-terrorism co-ordination with the European Union.

Separately, Washington is also expected soon to re-appoint a liaison officer at Europol, the EU police agency. A liaison officer was posted to Europol's headquarters in The Hague shortly after the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11 2001, but the US then caused embarrassment at Europol when it decided to withdraw him within months.

Tom Ridge, secretary of the US department, is planning to post his senior official in Brussels by the end of this year, according to officials who attended a weekend meeting between Mr Ridge and António Vitorino, the EU's justice commissioner, as well as Piet Hein Donner, justice minister of the Netherlands, which holds the EU's rotating presidency.

The US official will focus on border security issues and could be the first port of call for EU officials dealing with terrorism, including Gijs de Vries, the EU's anti-terrorism co-ordinator.

From September 30, the US will require fingerprints from virtually all foreign visitors, ending the exemption from the "US-Visit" scheme that had been granted to 27 visa-waiver countries, 15 of them from the EU.

While Brussels has accepted Washington's reasons for tightening its scheme to help keep terrorists out of the US, Mr Vitorino and Chris Patten, the EU's external relations commissioner, wrote this month to Mr Ridge and Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, asking Washington to help reduce unhappiness among European travellers by explaining better the switch to more burdensome travel procedures.

Accordingly, Mr Ridge went on a charm offensive last week in Europe, telling government officials and media that Washington wanted "the welcome mat out". Mr Ridge also privately told EU officials he was "fairly optimistic" that Congress would eventually agree to a further one-year delay for measures forcing travellers to carry passports with biometric identifiers. Congress has agreed to delay the legislation until October 2005, but Brussels says this is not enough, as the introduction of EU biometric passports is only scheduled for late 2005.

John Ashcroft, US attorney-general, is also due to visit Europe at the end of this month. In another goodwill gesture, he is expected to discuss extending the US visa-waiver scheme to more EU countries. Of the 10 countries that joined the EU in May, only Slovenia benefits from the scheme. This has created tensions in the EU and forced Brussels to suggest loosening a so-called solidarity clause allowing EU member states to demand equal treatment in matters such as visas.

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