Brussels attacks US plan to charge visitors

US plans to levy fees on European Union tourists and business travellers visiting the US have come under fire in Brussels and could prompt the EU to enact its own visa-like system for US travellers, according to diplomats.

A bill making its way through Congress would require all visitors travelling under the visa-waiver programme – in which 22 of the EU’s 27 member states participate – to pay up to $15 and register their visit at least three days before departure.

In the past, most Europeans visiting the US for less than 90 days have not had to make pre-departure arrangements. The same applies to US visitors to the EU under visa-reciprocity guidelines.

“If this tax is indeed introduced, the Commission will have to re-evaluate once again whether it is tantamount to a visa,” said a spokesman for Jacques Barrot, the commissioner for justice and home affairs, on Tuesday.

The European Commission originally balked at a US demand that its citizens would have to register online before travelling. The policy came into force this year but is not yet being strictly implemented. Brussels decided against saying the step was tantamount to a visa, partly after being assured by the US that no payment would be attached.

However, US officials told the Financial Times that “travellers should expect there will be fees . . . starting sometime in 2010. There is broad political consensus on the issue”.

The bill ushering in a fee – and a strict implementation of the 72-hour pre-registration – is well advanced and is expected to be passed into US law by the end of the year, barring procedural glitches.

EU diplomats are concerned partly because the fees do not correspond to the cost of security checks, estimated at $3-$5, but add a $10 charge that will be used to promote US tourism overseas.

John Bruton, the EU’s ambassador to Washington, recently criticised the plan, saying: “The proposed $10 penalty for entering the United States is being sold as a ‘tourist promotion’ measure, but only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed.”

Visiting Brussels last week, Janet Napolitano, the US secretary of homeland security, told members of the European parliament that the planned fee was “reasonable . . . in these days of reduced government budgets”. However, she hinted at concessions on the retention of airline passengers’ data, another long-running EU concern.

The fee would have to be paid every two years by tourists and business travellers, or every time a passport was issued.

The visa-waiver programme extends to 13 non-EU countries, including Norway, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Visas for travellers from countries not participating in the programme currently cost $131.

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