Brussels: All non-Europeans would need to submit biometric data before crossing Europe’s frontiers under sweeping European Union proposals to combat illegal migration, terrorism and organized crime that are to be outlined this week.
The plans—arguably the biggest shake-up of border management in Europe since the creation of an internal travel zone—would apply to citizens of the US and all other countries that now enjoy visa-free status.
They would, however, allow EU citizens and “low-risk” frequent travellers from outside the bloc to pass through automated, fast-track frontier checkpoints without coming into contact with border guards. Voluntary programmes for prescreening such visitors, who would register fingerprints and other data, would be stepped up.
The proposals, contained in draft documents examined by the International Herald Tribune and scheduled to go to the European Commission on Wednesday, were designed to bring the EU visa regime into line with a new era in which passports include biometric data.
The commission, the EU executive, argues that migratory pressure, organized crime and terrorism are obvious challenges to the Union and that the bloc’s border and visa policy needs to be brought up to date. It also wants a new European Border Surveillance System to be created, to use satellites and unmanned aircraft to help track the movements of suspected illegal migrants.
If approved by the commission this week, the measures would need the approval of all EU states.
The US routinely requires European citizens to submit fingerprints when crossing its borders and the commission’s document notes that America plans to introduce an electronic travel-authorization system for people from countries such as Britain, France and Germany that are in its Visa Waiver Program.
The commission’s proposals cover the Schengen zone, Europe’s internal free-travel area named after the village in Luxembourg near where the original agreement between five countries was signed on 14 June 1985. Twenty-four countries are now members.
It is unclear whether Britain and Ireland, which along with Cyprus are not members of Schengen, would opt into the programme.
Each year more than 300 million travellers cross EU borders, but there is no obligation for countries inside the Schengen free-travel zone to keep a record of entries and exits of non-European third-country nationals in a dedicated database. Moreover, if the visitor leaves from another Schengen country, it is often impossible to determine whether or not the visitor overstayed his or her visa.
The proposals, drafted by the European commissioner for justice and home affairs, Franco Frattini, suggest that non-Europeans on a short-stay visa would be checked against a Visa Information System that is already under construction and should be operational in 2012.
Frattini also is calling for a new database to be set up to store information on the time and place of entry and exit of non-European nationals, using biometric identifiers. Once a person’s visa expired, an alert would go out to all national authorities that the visitor had overstayed his or her allotted time.
Travellers from countries with a visa requirement would need to provide biometric data at European consulates before leaving their home country. Those arriving from nations not requiring visas, such as the US, would also need to submit fingerprints and a digitized facial image.
But the European Union would try to make the system more user-friendly for Europeans and some categories of bona fide visitors by granting them the status of “registered traveller.” They would be able to have their biometric travel documents scanned and checked by machines.
All Europeans should be able to use such a system when EU countries complete the task of issuing passports with two biometric identifiers, by 2019 at the latest.
The 27 EU countries started issuing passports with a digitalized facial image in August 2006 and, in June 2009, will add the holder’s fingerprints. European residence permits will also contain the same identifiers.
Non-Europeans could gain the same, fast-track status providing they have not overstayed previous visas, have proof of sufficient funds to pay for their stay in Europe and hold a biometric passport.
All non-European nationals would be asked to make an electronic application, supplying key data, before their arrival, allowing them to be checked against anti-terror databases in advance.
The draft documents also highlight weaknesses in Europe’s efforts to guard its borders. One paper points out that, in the eight EU countries with external borders in the Mediterranean Sea and southern Atlantic, frontier surveillance is carried out by about 50 authorities from 30 institutions, sometimes with competing competencies and systems.
The plans foresee increased use of satellites and unmanned surveillance aircraft to monitor unauthorized movements, and a computerized communication network to share information.
Frattini also wants to see a bigger role for the agency that coordinates cooperation over external borders, known as Frontex. Although the agency has been criticized in some southern European nations for failing to match the scale of the challenge over illegal migration, the commission argues that it has achieved impressive results.
In 2006 and 2007 more than 53,000 people were apprehended or denied entry at a frontier and at least 2,900 false travel documents were seized. In addition, 58 people suspected of links to illegal trafficking have been arrested.
©2008/INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE