- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Americans traveling to Europe may soon be required to go online at least 48 hours before they leave and obtain electronic entry visas, EU officials said.

They said the 27-country European Union is considering the new requirement in response to Bush administration plans to introduce electronic visas for all EU citizens seeking to visit the United States.

The European Union’s intention has been conveyed to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff by Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission in Brussels, the officials said Monday. Mr. Frattini urged close U.S.-EU cooperation on developing the two systems, they said.

Mr. Chertoff’s department decided several months ago to introduce the electronic visas under a program known as Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) to gather more information about passengers at least a day or two before their flights.

“We may consider the introduction of a similar reciprocal system on the EU level,” said Telmo Baltazar, justice and home affairs counselor at the European Commission’s delegation in Washington. “Close cooperation and consultation with the U.S. would therefore be very useful.”

Mr. Chertoff says the reciprocity is “fair.”

“We are perfectly content to have Europe impose the same basic approach,” he told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last month.

Americans and citizens of certain other countries, who at present can visit any EU member state with nothing more than a valid passport, would have to submit passport information and other personal data through the Internet to apply for an ETA.

The United States is moving quickly to implement its ETA program, and a reciprocal European program could be in place as early as next year.

EU officials have been vocal in their insistence that the U.S. visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of most Western European countries into the United States without a visa, be extended to all EU members, including former communist states in Central and Eastern Europe.

In November, the Bush administration responded by proposing to treat all European countries equally but require everyone to obtain an electronic visa.

“We are developing an ETA program to elevate the security level by getting advance information on all passengers,” said Laura Keehner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

She said the U.S. system will be modeled on an Australian ETA program, although specifics, such as the visa’s validity period, are still being worked out. Travelers to Australia must obtain an ETA before boarding their planes, either from the airline or on the Internet.

The United States has proposed requiring passengers to obtain ETAs 48 hours before traveling, but European officials say that would make it impossible for last-minute business travelers to benefit from the visa-waiver program. They would have to apply for a paper visa at a U.S. consulate.

Under the U.S. plan, travelers who apply for an ETA online would get a “green light” if they are approved. If a “yellow light” appears, they would have to visit a consulate.

“That’s exactly the thing we should be discussing,” Mr. Baltazar said. “How would the system decide who gets a green light and who gets a yellow light?”

He said a DHS working group is scheduled to hold a meeting on the issue in Brussels later this week.

Under the proposed legislation, visa-waiver countries will be required to report all lost and stolen passports of their citizens, agree to repatriate those who break U.S. laws, improve airport security and allow U.S. air marshals on aircraft flying to the United States.

Twenty-seven countries — mostly in Western Europe but including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei — now participate in the visa-waiver program. Most new EU members do not qualify because of the high refusal rates among their visa applicants.

The new bill would abolish that requirement, and President Bush, after a meeting with visiting Polish President Lech Kaczynski this week, urged Congress to approve it speedily.

Congress is set to discuss the bill in conference in the coming weeks, and a bipartisan group from both the House and the Senate called for approval in a letter to the chairmen of the Homeland Security Committees late last month.

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