A joint visa information center will be set up next year. By 2007, all visitors to the Schengen area who require visas will be fingerprinted and digitally photographed.
The plan has already been approved by EU member states. As European Commission official Jan de Ceuster explains, it has a twofold objective.
"One the one hand, there are security considerations. It will be a means permitting us to improve the fight against illegal immigration and threats to public order. But on the other hand -- and this must not be forgotten -- it will be a means of assisting the free movement of foreign nationals who need a visa, who travel in good faith," de Ceuster says.
Currently, the "Schengen area" includes all pre-enlargement EU member states except for Britain and Ireland, as well as nonmembers Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. Under current plans, new EU member states can join the scheme starting around 2007.
Currently, the citizens of 134 non-EU countries need visas to visit the bloc. Visas are issued by member states separately, and officials say the absence of a joint information processing center has left the system open to abuse.
Frank Paul, another European Commission official, today describes how the new joint visa information system will work.
"The visa applicant will have to leave his fingerprints and a digitized image of his face will be taken. That information is sent in parallel to the national visa information system of every member state and the central unit of the visa information system. While the national visa information systems do all kinds of background checks on the applicant -- whether he has a criminal record, whether he has by that country already been refused a visa, etc., etc. -- in parallel, the central system will be checked for the history of the visa applications of that person [across the entire Schengen area]," Paul says.
Paul says this means that two of the most common ways of fraudulently obtaining EU visas will be a "thing of the past." Applicants, once refused, will not be able to reapply at the consulate of another country. Also, identity switches by means of illegally obtained passports will be easily detected once the so-called "biometric" checks of fingerprints and digitized pictures come into operation.
The European Commission estimates the Schengen countries will receive 20 million visa requests a year in 2007. Currently, about one-quarter of all applications are rejected.
Officials say it has not been decided whether fingerprints and digitized images will be embedded in a special computer chip incorporated into the visa, or if visas will be issued together with plastic "smart cards" carrying the information separately.