Dispute looms over biometric passports

The European Union is considering its options after learning the U.S. is unlikely to extend the October deadline requiring European travelers to have passports with biometric capabilities should they wish to enter the U.S. without a visa.

The E.U. will decide in the next couple of weeks if it will require U.S. citizens to obtain visas to travel to E.U. countries if their U.S. passports lack digitized facial data, said E.U. Commission spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing.

The U.S. biometric authentication requirement in the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 requires the 27 nations participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program to begin implementing new passports with biometric features that support facial recognition by Oct. 26. The program allows a U.K. citizen, for example, to visit the U.S. for a set period without a visa obtained from the U.S. Embassy.

The original deadline of Oct. 26, 2004, was extended after affected countries, including those within the E.U., indicated they would not be able to implement the required technology on time. Last October, as part of its extension provision, the U.S. began requiring Europeans to have a machine-readable passport to enter the U.S, and to have their fingerprints and photograph digitized upon arrival at U.S. Customs.

In March, the E.U. formally requested a second delay, to Aug. 28, 2006, which is when the E.U. will require biometric images on passports. But in a letter dated March 31 replying to the request, U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner said an extension is not likely.

However, the U.S. law only affects new passports, so those with valid machine-readable passports can continue to use them to travel to the U.S. even after the October deadline, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in London said Monday.

“The increased awareness and concern of both the American public and most members of Congress regarding continued weakness in U.S. border security will make an additional extension difficult to accomplish. Consequently, I strongly suggest that the European Commission plan without the expectation that there will be an extension of the deadline, and encourage member states to do their best to meet the requirements,” Sensenbrenner said in a letter to Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission and Luc Frieden, president of the European Council of Ministers.

Sensenbrenner said that he was pleased to learn that Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia and possibly Germany and Italy have sped up their timetables to allow initial passport production by the deadline. But it remains unclear if even those countries that are able to supply the biometric passports will be able to meet the Oct. 26 deadline for all citizens who request them.

The U.K. plans to begin including a chip with biometric facial identifiers in passports by the end of 2005 or the beginning of 2006, meaning it would miss the deadline. About 4 million U.K. citizens visit the U.S. every year, according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Of those, 10 per cent, or 400,000 people, who travel to the U.S. within a given year apply for a new or renewed passport, ABTA spokesman Sean Tipton said.

“We have been assured by the Foreign Office that the discussions over extending the deadline are still ongoing bilaterally with the E.U. and remain hopeful the deadline extension will be granted,” Tipton said. “That said, we are encouraging all U.K. citizens planning to travel to the U.S. after Oct. 26 to renew their passports as soon as they can.”

A spokesman at the U.K. Foreign Office said that negotiations between the U.S. and the E.U. are continuing, but declined further comment.

The U.S. Embassy grants visas to U.K. citizens from its offices in London and Belfast for a