US border bill would hit EU travellers

European countries would be kicked out of a programme for visa-free travel to the US if they did not share counterterrorism intelligence with the US under legislation introduced in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

The killing of 130 people by jihadis including French and Belgian nationals has sparked US alarm about the possibility of European fighters who have been to Syria gaining access to the US under a popular visa waiver programme.

With pressure growing for tighter border controls, Republicans on Thursday introduced legislation that would demand more information from countries in the programme and toughen entry requirements for individual travellers.

Any plans to make it harder for European Union citizens to travel to the US would be met with dismay in Brussels, where sensitivity to the reciprocity of entry requirements is high.

The European Commission is already frustrated that while Americans enjoy visa-free travel in the EU, citizens of some eastern European countries — including Poland — have to apply for a permit before travelling to the US.

The visa waiver programme, which lets visitors stay up to 90 days following limited security checks, covers 30 European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei and Chile.

It brings almost 20m visitors to the US every year and the travel industry — which sees it as a vital lubricant for transatlantic tourism and business — has warned lawmakers against hasty revisions to a system that it says already boosts security.

The Paris attacks triggered a backlash in the US against the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but senior lawmakers warn that the visa waiver programme creates far bigger risks.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, underscored lawmakers' concerns that some of the Paris terrorists with EU passports could have travelled easily to the US.

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"I want to emphasise [that] 5,000 western passport holders have travelled to Iraq and Syria. This is why this is needed now to be able to combat this," he told reporters on Thursday.

He noted that the legislation had already won broad bipartisan support at committee level in Congress and expressed confidence that President Barack Obama would back it.

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the administration was "pleased the conversations yielded legislation that would make our country safer".

The legislation threatens countries with expulsion from the visa waiver programme if they fail to share counterterrorism information with the US. Candice Miller, a Republican congresswoman who drafted the bill, said: "That really is a big thing."

A western diplomat said there was already "pretty extensive" intelligence co-operation between Europe and the US and said the EU was fully in favour of more information exchange.

But the European parliament has repeatedly thrown up barriers to the sharing of personal data — such as airline passenger name records — with the US.

To enter the US under the waiver programme travellers must be authorised via a web-based system called Esta that performs minimal checks against security and law enforcement databases. There is no requirement for a face-to-face interview or embassy visit.

The proposed legislation would deny visa-free access to travellers who have dual nationality with Iraq and Syria and to people who have travelled to those countries in the past five years. Instead they would have to apply for a regular visa.

It would also require all visa waiver countries to check travellers against Interpol databases, to issue fraud-resistant "e-passports" containing biometric information, and to share data on lost and stolen passports.