Europe tightens travel checks
 
Britons to face fingerprint tests for France

Nicholas Watt in Brussels
Saturday January 8, 2005
The Guardian


British holidaymakers travelling to France and several other European countries will be required to undergo fingerprint checks under new rules announced yesterday.

French passport officials stationed at Eurostar stations in London and Kent will be free to demand checks from British cross-Channel rail passengers. Couples arriving by air for a weekend city break in Paris will also face the tests.

The tougher controls, announced yesterday by the European commission in Brussels, will come into effect in 2007 and will apply to holders of new biometric passports.

Travellers will be subject to identity checks to prove that the document belongs to them. Biometric passports, which are designed to improve security, have two key features: a digital record of the holder's fingerprint and a digital photograph. Passport officials will be entitled to ask travellers to pose before a camera or to have their fingers scanned to prove they are the named holder.

"This is all about the security of documents," said a British official. "There will be no database of fingerprints and there will be no ink involved."

The new rules are likely to irritate thousands of Britons who are accustomed to relatively cursory checks when they cross the channel to Britain's favourite tourist destination. At some French regional airports, tourists are currently waved through without any checks at all.

There may be a political bonus for the government - as it tries to win round Eurosceptics ahead of the forthcoming referendum on the EU constitution - because the new rules highlight Britain's distinct, detached relationship with much of the EU.

French, Germans, Italians, Belgians, Dutch and many other European citizens will face no tests when they cross each other's borders because they are members of the "Schengen" area where passport controls have been lifted.

Britain decided not to join this common area, which was established in 1985. This now means that anyone travelling from Britain to a Schengen country - with France the most popular destination - will be subject to the fingerprint test if they carry a biometric passport.

The 15 Schengen members are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

British travellers to Europe may find the controls reminiscent of the tougher restrictions imposed on holidaymakers going to the United States, which require many Britons to undergo photographs and fingerprint tests on arrival.

But British officials said last night that the new European rules were different and would be far less irritating for tourists.

Europe plans to launch a centralised visa database by the end of next year to help curtail illegal immigration, EU officials said yesterday.

The Visa Information System (VIS) will store data on people who apply for a visa at any of the 3,500 consulates run by countries that have signed up to the Schengen agreement.

The aim of the database is to prevent an applicant who has been denied a visa by one country from obtaining a visa to another country with a false passport, said officials.

"VIS has two main goals: contributing to the internal security of the member states and the fight against illegal immigration by supporting the common visa policy and the checks on the visa applicants," said Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner for justice, freedom and security.

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