European Union plays down concerns about new US travel restrictions

The European Union presidency on Thursday played down concerns that the United States is trying to impose a visa in disguise on European air travellers by introducing new restrictions next year.

The United States announced on Tuesday that it would introduce an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in January, which travellers from western Europe and Japan would have to fill in before they flew out.

“I don’t believe personally that it is a new form of visa,” said Slovenian Interior Minister Dragutin Mate, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency until the end of the month.

“The requirement for data is not more than citizens of the European Union already (provide) when we travel to the United States,” he told reporters as he arrived to chair a meeting of his EU counterparts in Luxembourg.

The ESTA system would oblige travellers from western Europe and Japan, who currently do not need a visa, to provide details they usually fill out on their flight boarding cards before they arrive at US airports.

The travel authority, similar to a system in force in Australia, would be completed electronically — either at the travel agent or over the Internet — and would ideally need to be done three days before flying out.

Mate said that he had discussed the system with US officials and had been assured that “the majority of the passengers will have answers (on whether they can travel) in a few minutes, very, very fast.”

It would only take longer “in special cases to check some data,” he said.

EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said he was still awaiting more details about the ESTA from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“They still have to give me all the information I need to know exactly what ESTA is and if, as they say, ESTA only uses electronically the same data that they already ask for from passengers in the aircraft,” he said.

The commission, which negotiates such security arrangements on behalf of the 27 EU member countries, wants to establish whether the system would amount to a de-facto visa, which US authorities insist it is not.

Forcing people to apply for an ESTA — which would be valid for two years — three days in advance could hinder last-minute travel.

According to the DHS, the system is meant to make it more difficult for potential terrorists to enter the United States from places like France, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

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