Travellers who currently enjoy visa-free travel to Europe should face additional security checks, the European Commission said Wednesday, laying out new ideas to boost border security amid fears of terrorism and illegal migration.
The commission's plan would launch an online system, at the earliest in 2020, to vet travellers from the 57 countries currently exempt from a European visa requirement.
More than 1 million migrants and refugees crossed Europe's borders last year, prompting EU officials to ask how they might boost external border security for the region's passport-free Schengen area.
However, it is not clear if the new plan would have had any effect on those figures.
Under the commission's proposal, travellers from the affected areas would be screened using an automated online system and pay a fee of 5 euros (5.35 dollars) before entering any of the 26 Schengen member states.
The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), modeled on ESTA visa-waiver scheme in the United States, would take three years and 212 million euros to develop, the commission said.
Revenues from the processing fee, paid by travellers aged 18 and older, would cover the estimated 85-million-euro annual operating cost, according to the commission.
Asked how many visa-exempt visitors travel to Schengen countries each year, a commission spokesman said non-EU citizens carry out 200 million Schengen border crossings annually.
Under ETIAS, visitors will have to provide personal data, identification and answers to background questions that will be vetted against several EU security databases and a dedicated ETIAS watch list.
The commission estimates that 95 per cent of applicants can expect automated approval "within minutes of payment." The figure is based on similar systems in the US and Canada, entry-refusal statistics and alerts already on file in the databases to be used by ETIAS.
"Making sure we have the highest level of data protection is something that will take time," commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters in Brussels, responding to questions about the three-year lag in launching the system.
Fears about porous external borders were prompted in part by revelations that terrorist suspects in recent attacks on Paris and Brussels were among those who travelled freely across Schengen borders last year.
The new measures proposed Wednesday would not have prevented those attacks, as the majority of the suspects were EU nationals.
Persons with criminal backgrounds or a history of passport falsification would be "flashed out" by the system, Timmermans said, but acknowledged that "even the highest walls and the highest fences will not stop certain people."
"[ETIAS] will bridge the existing information gap by collecting ... information that could be vital to national authorities," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said.
The ETIAS proposal requires approval by the European Parliament and member states to take effect.