The European Union predicts that only six of its 25 members will make a deadline for including biometric data in new passports, raising the prospect that visas will be required for the first time for millions of trans-Atlantic visitors to the United States.
Britain and Japan, the top two travel originations, are among the affected countries.
The Oct. 26 deadline for the Visa Waiver Program — which designates which countries’ nationals can visit the United States without a visa — is unlikely to be extended, House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. told European officials in a recent letter.
“I strongly suggest that the European Commission plan without the expectation that there will be an extension of the deadline,” Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote.
The Wisconsin Republican noted that the deadline already had been pushed back one year, and that continuing concern among lawmakers about U.S. border security would make another delay “difficult to accomplish.”
European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini wrote to Mr. Sensenbrenner last month, asking that the date be pushed back a second time to Aug. 28, 2006, the European deadline for the change. He added that only six countries — Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and Sweden — would be ready by October.
“Another extension is necessary,” said Rick Webster, government affairs director of the U.S. Travel Industry Association. “The bottom line is that, despite their best efforts, neither Britain nor Japan will make the deadline — that is the number one and number two markets for travel to the United States.”
Mr. Webster said that by some counts, as many as 2 million travelers might be unable to visit the United States visa-free next year unless the deadline is extended.
“I have heard that the State Department is doing contingency planning,” he said. “But I can’t imagine what kind of planning they could do for an additional 2 million visas — it’s impossible.”
Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, visiting Brussels last week for talks with his European counterparts, addressed the impasse at a brief press availability.
“It’s a serious matter in terms of security,” Mr. Zoellick told reporters. “It’s also a serious matter in terms of getting people into the United States.”
He said the Bush administration “will continue to try to work with our partners in Europe [and] the U.S. Congress,” adding: “But right now, it’s a law, and so we’re bound by it.”
Mr. Sensenbrenner stressed that the biometric requirement for a fingerprint or a tamper-proof digitally encoded photograph applies only to passports issued after the deadline. Older passports still could be used for visa-free travel to the United States.
According to figures from the British government’s Office for National Statistics, more than 4 million British citizens travel to the United States every year. The Association of British Travel Agents said about 10 percent of them renew their passport every year.
Failing to extend the deadline, Mr. Webster said, would “send the wrong message to the rest of world … that the United States is not willing to do what’s necessary to make visitors welcome.”
The travel industry spokesman said that the industry already was “battling a perception” of “fortress America” and that “confusion and concern” generated by the debate would cause tourists to rethink post-October travel plans to the United States.
In his letter to Mr. Sensenbrenner, Mr. Frattini blamed failure to meet the deadline on the late agreement on an international standard for passport biometrics. He said introduction of biometrics in U.S. passports had been delayed for the same reason.
But Mr. Sensenbrenner said the European Union was to blame because it had adopted unnecessarily advanced technology, choosing to link biometrics with introduction of remotely readable electronic chips.
“In my view, much expense and public consternation could have been avoided by a less technically ambitious approach,” he said.