Editor, Statewatch

The European Union (E.U.) looks likely to set up a U.S.-style system of checks on biometric data at border points of entry after technical problems with a planned chip-based visa system emerged.

The E.U. has been working since 2003 on plans to include biometric identifiers on the several million visas it grants every year. Originally, the system would have required digitized fingerprint information and a facial photograph to be stored on contactless chips in visas, which can then be attached to passports and travel documents. This would be very time-consuming, costly and in some cases lead to long queues which people’s details are checked and cleared.Tony Bunyan>Text

But according to an internal E.U. document published Wednesday on the Web site of U.K.-based civil liberties campaign group Statewatch, member states have realized that interference among multiple chips on different visas could make the proposed system unworkable.

Instead, most countries are reported to be in favor of storing the biometric data on a centralized Visa Information System, due to be up and running by 2007, rather than on the chips themselves.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, said that this would mean that the E.U. would be more likely to have a U.S.-style system of lengthy personal checks on the reliability of biometric data at points of entry rather than a fast-track system where only the validity of the visa was being checked.

“This would be very time-consuming, costly and in some cases lead to long queues which people’s details are checked and cleared,” Bunyan said in a statement on the Statewatch Web site.

Under the original plan, an applicant’s identity would have been checked when the visa was issued at one of the E.U.’s 3,500 consulates around the world.

But a requirement to store data on a central system would mean that instead of simply checking whether a visa was valid, each person’s identity would have to be verified against centrally held records, causing potentially very large holdups at points of entry and requiring major investments in IT infrastructure and staff training, according to Statewatch

The new visa system would only apply to 23 of the E.U. 25 member states, as the U.K. and Ireland opted out of cooperation on visa rules.

On Friday, the European Commission announced plans to create a centralized Visa Information System that would centrally store all information relating to the millions of visa applications E.U. member states receive each year.

By centralizing the data, it is hoped that it would cut down on the so-called practice of visa shopping, where people make multiple applications in different E.U. countries to take advantage of differing entry requirements, sometimes because an application has already been rejected in one country.

The new system is meant to be up and running fully by 2007.

The E.U. received 12 million applications for visas in 2001 and this figure is expected to rise to 20 million by 2007. Currently around a quarter of applications are rejected while a fifth are made up of requests for repeat visas for frequent travellers.