The European Union's top justice official proposed Friday to replicate U.S. border security measures in Europe with plans to fingerprint and electronically record the entry and exit of all visitors to the 27-nation bloc.
The measures would ensure more secure borders and prevent visitors from illegally entering Europe, or overstaying the three-month stay given to tourists and EU visa holders, Franco Frattini said.
"The electronic register should include viable biometric identifiers," Frattini told reporters during two-day talks of EU justice and interior ministers. He said visitors overstaying their welcome were "the No. 1" cause of illegal immigration.
The plan, to be presented in detail next month, was seen as retaliation for Washington's recent expansion of its program fingerprinting most international visitors, including those from countries considered European allies.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also said recently that Europeans could soon be required to register online for authorization to enter the U.S. — similar to an electronic visa system already used in Australia.
Frattini said his new security measures would include such an "electronic travel authorization" for entering the EU, but he called on the EU and the U.S. to work together in setting up a compatible system.
"We do want interoperability instead of two separate systems," Frattini said. Officials said they aimed to get all EU governments to back the proposal by the end of this year
Terror threat warnings
The new proposals came as EU ministers sat down to discuss whether they should back separate plans to collect detailed data on airline passengers flying into the 27-nation bloc amid warnings that the threat of new terror attacks remains high.
Such a data system, modeled after one adopted by the U.S., would store 19 pieces of sensitive passenger data for 13 years, including e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and payment details of flight tickets.
Several EU nations have expressed reservations, however, over how all 27 EU governments could process the vast amounts of data gathered from thousands of flights entering and leaving the bloc each day. Privacy advocates also have criticized the plan, saying it could infringe on passengers' rights to privacy.
Frattini urged them to put their doubts aside, saying the data-storage system was "absolutely necessary."
"We have been dealing with the security of Americans, (and) now the time has come to deal with the security of Europeans," Frattini said. "Terrorism remains threat No. 1."
Luxembourg's Justice Minister Luc Frieden said more study was needed before the bloc moved to set up such a system.
"We must evaluate what the advantages are," Frieden said. "The European Union has the right to know who enters, but I am not sure that a large amount of information that would be collected can be examined by each member state ... we need more information on the effectiveness of the system."
Slovenia's Interior Minister Dragutin Mate, who was chairing the talks, said the EU ministers were debriefed by British officials over how it has operated its own passenger data collection system. Denmark and France also plan to launch similar systems, Frattini said.
Mate said there was "general support from all ministers" on setting up a European system, and he hoped the EU could agree on a final plan in 2009.
European nations are under renewed pressure from Washington to do more, after U.S. authorities this month expanded fingerprinting for most visitors to the U.S., now taking prints from all 10 fingers, rather than just two. The prints, as well as other data, is then used to screen out suspected terrorists.
The EU's plan would force airlines to hand over so-called Passenger Name Record, or PNR, data, which national policing authorities could use to assess the potential risk of those flying into the 27-nation bloc or leaving it.
The data _ including how the flight ticket was purchased, where, when and by whom _ would be retained for five years, then moved to a "dormant" database for another eight years before being permanently deleted.
Authorities from member states can use the data to question and even deny entry to people whom they deem a terror risk.