19th Apr 2019

US travel fee draws new dividing line with EU

  • New US business model? Tourists have to pay for advertising they receive (Photo: Tracy O)

A new transatlantic row is unfolding after the US introduced a $14 entry fee for EU travellers, with the European Commission analysing possible retaliatory measures. Meanwhile, US privacy officials are trying to alleviate concerns raised by MEPs over the collection of travellers' credit card data.

Introduced earlier this month, the fee, which can only be paid online via credit card, applies to EU tourists from 23 countries who do not require a visa to travel to the US. Travellers from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania continue to require a visa and pay different visa fees.

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In a lively debate on Wednesday (22 September), EU parlamentarians slammed the unilateral move from the US side and called on the European Commission to consider retaliatory measures.

The commission has so far avoided saying the new Electronic Travel Authorisation System (Esta) is a form of hidden visa, despite MEPs pointing out that EU travellers who are refused by this system cannot board a plane to the US.

"We are examining all possibilities, including an EU Esta system. A feasibility study is being worked on now and could be introduced in the future, if member states agree," said commissioner Maros Sefcovic, responsible for inter-institutional affairs and speaking on behalf of his colleague in charge of home affairs.

The EU executive was still hoping there could be a roll-back of this program, as it is "discriminatory" and runs counter all US declared goals of facilitating transatlantic exchanges, he added.

"It is peculiar for travellers to pay for tourism. This may result in less, not more tourism," he said.

Out of the $14, four are paid to maintain the Esta system, while the remaining 10 are a tourism promotion tax introduced by the Senate's Democratic majority leader Harry Reid, who is running for re-election next month in Nevada.

Privately, US officials admit that promoting tourism at the expense of incoming travellers is self-contradictory, but Mr Reid managed to muscle through his proposal in return for his key support on the health care bill passed earlier this year.

"Maybe the US is developing a new business model here: to have consumers pay for the advertising given to them. This is unbelievable," scoffed German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Mr Brok chairs the parliamentary committee in charge of EU-US relations.

Liberal German deputy Alexander Graf Lambsdorff called it a "bizarre" move and noted that for a family of four, the $14/head tax adds up to "real money."

"It's absurd that of all countries the US should tax people who are not represented. What about taxation without representation, that played a considerable role in US history," he asked, in reference to the slogan promoted by British colonists in the 18th century in the run-up to the American Revolution.

Mr Lambsdorff also raised concerns over what happens to the private data collected in connection to the credit card transaction required to pay the fee. "The Department of Homeland Security may give this data away to other authorities, even businesses that deal with travel. This is unacceptable from a privacy point of view," he said.

Commissioner Sefcovic also said the "high sensitivity of personal data collection is on our agenda" and would be brought up during a meeting of EU and US home affairs ministers in December.

Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Callahan, a US privacy official from the Department of Homeland Security, has rejected claims that credit card data would be used to other purposes.

"The credit card info is considered sensitive information. It is kept secure and there will be no sharing of the Esta data with regards to the credit card information," she said on Thursday in Brussels during a conference on transatlantic data privacy issues.

Ms Callahan did admit, however, that the data would be retained for one year, a measure that may seem excessive to her EU counterparts.

Data protection authorities in each member state are currently evaluating the way Esta is set up in terms of data protection and there may be a response at EU level as well, a commission official present at Thursday's debate added.

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