Wednesday

14th Apr 2021

Security fears prompt US scrutiny of EU visa waiver

  • Washington: ‘I’m not sure Europe gets the mood here’, Simonyi said (Photo: Matt Popovich)

US concerns over Islamic extremists travelling on EU passports could prompt new restrictions to its Visa Waiver Program.

The climate in Washington comes after a series of terrorist incidents in Belgium, Denmark, and France, and amid estimates that up to 5,000 EU nationals - “foreign fighters” - have gone to join Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

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  • Feinstein: Visa waivers are an 'Achilles' heel' (Photo: Dianne Feinstein)

Dianne Feinstein, a prominent senator from the ruling Democratic Party, spoke out on the subject following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris last month, telling CNN that visa-free travel is “the Achilles’ heel of America”.

She is currently drafting a bill to overhaul the visa perks.

Her office declined to give details. But a Congressional source told EUobserver her new legislation aims to “strengthen” security provisions and will be put forward “soon”.

The US waiver programme, launched in 1986, covers 38 countries, including 23 EU states, with only Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania left out.

Eligible travellers have to file online questionnaires about their trip. But they are free from other burdens, such as attending face-to-face interviews at US consulates, in a scheme which makes life easier for businessmen and tourists and which has symbolic value for US relations with its allies.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US’ principal counter-terrorist and border control body, shares Feinstein's anxieties.

“There’s a real concern here that there are a lot of countries in the waiver programme, and if European foreign fighters come back, they could travel here on visa-waiver”, a US official, who asked not be named, told this website.

The DHS was surprised how easily the wife of one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, who is suspected of helping to plot the assault, exploited the EU’s internal travel freedoms to flee from France, via Spain, to Syria.

It also notes the world’s highest per capita concentration of foreign fighters is in Vilvoorde, a suburb of Brussels located a short drive from the EU institutions.

It wants Europe to tighten security by imposing an EU-wide Passenger Name Records (PNR) regime and by increasing checks in the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area.

PNR obliges airlines to hand over passengers’ data, such as phone numbers or credit card details, to help security services cross-check if they have links to known terrorist suspects.

The DHS also wants EU states’ intelligence services to share more information with each other and with police forces and border control agencies.

“If you have intel, you need to get it to operators who can do something with it”, the US official noted.

Feinstein bill

It remains to be seen what Feinstein will propose and whether it will fly.

The bill needs to pass both chambers of Congress and to be signed off by the White House before it becomes law.

On one hand, the Democrats hold fewer seats than the Republican Party in the US assembly.

But on the other hand, the Republicans are security hawks, while Feinstein commands authority as the chair of the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee.

The White House, which sees IS and foreign fighters as a bigger priority than the Ukraine crisis, also showed its sensitivity by calling a summit, last week, on "countering violent extremism".

For his part, Andras Simonyi, a scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, who helped negotiate Hungary’s visa waiver in his time as ambassador to the US, says the threat to visa-free travel should not be exaggerated.

He said Feinstein’s “Achilles’ heel” appraisal is still “a minority voice”.

But he added: “It takes only one attack by a European [in the US] for this to change. Fighting terrorism is on the top of the president's and any presidential candidate's agenda. I’m not sure Europe gets the mood here and it should do more to dispel perceptions on PNR and Schengen”.

US security services are equally keen to avoid alarmism.

The US official said the waiver scheme is not as soft as it looks and that Washington sees it as an important asset.

“We’ve built many security requirements into the programme”, he noted. “We’re not just about security, we’re also here to facilitate legitimate trade and travel”.

He added the Charlie Hebdo incident created “a greater awareness” in the EU on the need for security reform.

Past form

But at the same time, he noted that previous attacks, such as the Madrid train bombings in 2004 or the London tube bombings in 2007, had a short-lived effect.

“We’re wondering, based on past incidents, how long this [the post-Charlie Hebdo mood] will last”, he said.

He was even more sceptical that EU states’ intelligence services will change their culture of selective, bilateral co-operation.

“We’ll believe it when we see it”, he noted.

On the EU side, the big political groups in the European Parliament aim to pass PNR legislation by 2016, but debate is ongoing on how to copper-plate privacy safeguards.

EU states recently called for amendments to Schengen rules to introduce more systematic checks of travel documents.

But the European Commission is sending out mixed messages on security.

It has backed the idea of confiscating travel documents of EU nationals suspected of trying to join IS. But it says rigorous implementation of the existing Schengen code is good enough.

Simonyi, the former Hungarian ambassador, noted that if US visa freedoms are jeopardised by EU inaction, it would be a “sad” loss for both sides.

“The visa waiver is a major achievement and is critical to keeping the flow of people between the US and most of its allies. I worked very hard to get Hungary on the programme. It’s a hugely important element in our relationship”.

US travellers set for EU biometric dragnet

Non-EU nationals who enter Europe will be asked to have their faces image-captured and fingerprints scanned upon arrival. The scheme is voluntary for now but may become obligatory.

Europe shocked by Copenhagen terror attack

Similar to the Charlie Hebdo terror in Paris, freedom of expression was the first target in Copenhagen followed by an attack on a Jewish community.

US pledges to extend EU visa perks

The EU and US have pledged to improve EU nationals’ access to America despite Washington’s concerns on European jihadists.

EU states could lose US visa waivers

US lawmakers preparing to vote on bill that could see select EU states lose visa waiver perks if they don’t comply with stricter security measures.

EU chokes on US visa dispute

Bulgaria and Romania want the EU to impose visas on US nationals. It probably won’t happen. But EU officials’ attempts to “wiggle” out of it haven’t gone down well.

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