European version of US visa waiver 'valuable weapon in anti-terror fight'

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A European version of the US visa waver programme will be a "valuable additional piece of the jigsaw" in the war on international terrorism, the British diplomat heading up security in Brussels has said.

Sir Julian King, European commissioner for the security union, said plans to introduce an electronic system for travel authorisation - known as an Esta in America - will help identify potential troublemakers before they arrive at border control gates.

The US scheme requires international travellers who are exempt from visa requirements to apply for an Esta and pay a small fee - around £10 - before entering the territory.

In his first British interview since taking up the role in September, Sir Julian said proposals for a European pre-clearance system would be presented this week.

He told the Press Association: "We think this is going to be a valuable additional piece of the jigsaw because it will allow us to know more about the people who are planning to come to the EU in advance so that if necessary they raise questions about either security or in some cases migration.

"We'll be able to intervene even before they arrive in some cases."

Plans had been mooted over the summer that suggested Britons would have to apply for visas to travel throughout continental Europe once the UK leaves the EU.

The scheme suggested the 26-nation passport-free Schengen zone, which does not include the UK, could operate a visa programme similar to the US waiver.

Currently British passport holders can travel throughout member states without having to apply for short-term visas, but Britain's decision to leave the EU has left question marks over the criteria needed for UK nationals to visit the Schengen zone.

The Esta proposals are part of a broader response to calls for greater security across the continent following recent terror attacks in Europe - and comes one year on from the Paris atrocities.

Sir Julian said: "The fact that we're having this conversation now is unfortunately timely, because Sunday is one year on from the horrible attacks in Paris which were part of a series of attacks that shocked France, shocked the whole of Europe.

"It's that level of present, persistent, indiscriminate threat that led to 80-plus percent of European citizens saying they want more action in this area.

"There are a number of elements at the heart of this task - tackling terrorism is one, but not the only part of it. There's work that needs to be done on cyber crime and attacks, and serious and organised crime.

"On terrorism there were a number of things already in hand."

This includes making it more difficult to get hold of deactivated firearms in the EU, as well as plans to criminalise travel to and from Syria and Iraq, and making changes to checks at passport control that are designed to increase the amount of information known about the traveller without slowing down the process at passport control.

He said further meetings are also planned with Internet Service Providers (IPSs) in an attempt to reduce the emergence of homegrown terror cells.

Sir Julian said: "There is (content) on the internet that isn't illegal but is extremely unpleasant and prejudicial.

"We are working with the ISPs to identify stuff and talk to them whether according to their rules and procedures it should be taken down. Part of Europol, the internet referral unit, has referred thousands of items over the last 12 months and in nine out of 10 cases ISPs have taken it down.

"But we need to reinforce that because thousands is great, but there are hundreds of thousands of such items on the net. We have a meeting next month of the EU internet forum which is designed to have a discussion with ISPs on how best to build our cooperation.

"But there is also, crucially, day in day out, work in the community. Unfortunately Daesh (Islamic State) and some of their agents are working in the community to try and spread their message and try and radicalise individuals - we have to work against that.

"That's not in many cases going to be national authorities - certainly not police authorities - it's not going to be people coming from Brussels, because the people we are trying to reach - often young people - feel alienated from authority.

"The most effective way to reach them is the civil society, grass roots actors, often other young people.

"We can help and support, sometimes by funding, but also by creating networks so that all across Europe people who are doing this work can help each other, learn from each other and support each other.

"We had such a meeting yesterday in Brussels of the radicalisation awareness network where we had hundreds of people from across the EU engaged in this work with prisoners, young people, people in rehabilitation, exchanging best practice."