EU Asks Washington to Delay Biometric Passports

EU officials request one-year extension on biometric passports, afraid it will otherwise miss 2005 deadline


European Union officials called on the United States on Thursday to grant them another one-year extension to introduce biometric passports, saying the 25-nation bloc will miss the 2005 deadline to have the new documents ready.

Antonio Vitorino, the EU's justice and home affairs commissioner, told his U.S. counterpart Attorney General John Ashcroft the EU would ask the U.S. Congress for a new 2006 target date.

``We are still pushing ahead and asking our American friends to give us an extra delay,'' Vitorino told reporters after EU-U.S. security talks before EU justice and internal affairs ministers began two days of meetings.

``Member states of the European Union will only be prepared to start issuing biometric passports by the end of next year,'' he said, well after the October 2005 deadline set by the U.S. Congress.

The U.S. Congress gave the EU a one year delay earlier this year.

EU justice and interior ministers have fast-tracked EU legislation to ready the new travel documents.

EU spokesman Pietro Petrucci said countries would have to include only one mandatory biometric feature -- a digital face -- in the new passports.

The United States says it will impose stricter entry checks next year as part of tighter border security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Under the USA Patriot Act, visitors from 27 countries, including the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, will need computer-readable passports with biometric facial features to enter the United States after Oct. 26, 2005. Otherwise, their citizens will have to apply for visas.

Washington argues the upgrades are necessary to meet specifications of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which approved facial features to be used as a global standard for biometric data. It gave the option for countries to use a secondary biometric, such as a fingerprint or iris image.

On Thursday, upgraded border controls went into effect in the United States, with the introduction of electronic fingerprint scans for all Europeans travelers.

Ashcroft reassured the EU ministers that the new measures would not impede business travelers or tourists. ``We are not a nation that will be advantaged by limiting people that come to the United States unduly,'' he said.

EU ministers raised concerns with Ashcroft and Asa Hutchinson, the U.S. undersecretary for homeland security, who also attended the talks, as to what would be done with the logged fingerprints and photos collected by U.S. customs officers.

``We want to get secure borders, but we want to keep the free flow of people across it,'' Vitorino said.

EU officials said their U.S. counterparts reassured them that use of the data was limited to customs authorities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Citizens from 15 EU countries who have enjoyed visa-free travel to the United States will have to undergo the new checks as part of the new ``U.S.-Visit'' program.

Other nations who joined the EU last May, mostly eastern European states, have not yet met U.S. security standards to enjoy visa-free status, Ashcroft said.