Transatlantic business relations risk being strained and billions of dollars of tourism revenue squandered unless the US delays tough new entry requirements to be introduced this year, a UK business leader has warned.
Sir Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said US demands for visitors to hold passports containing biometric information would cause “enormous problems” for UK business.
The UK is one of several countries expected to miss an October 26 deadline to start issuing the high-tech passports, which include a digital photo embedded with a chip.
Only six European countries Belgium, Germany, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Luxembourg are expected to meet the deadline. People with passports issued after the deadline without biometric features will need a visa to enter the US.
The measures, designed to increase US security following the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, affect 27 countries whose citizens are currently allowed to enter the US without visas, including most of Europe and Japan.
Addressing a conference in Washington on Tuesday, Sir Digby accused Congress of squandering goodwill towards the US and failing to understand the realities of global business.
“Applications for US visas can take up to three weeks but global business just doesn't work in these old-style timeframes,” he said. “Vital meetings will simply not be possible without the freedom to enter the US without a visa.”
However, the spokesman for one of the legislators responsible for the rules accused critics of spreading “misinformation” and said the changes would affect relatively few visitors.
“Many people believe that after the deadline all European citizens entering the US will be required to have biometric passports but that is simply not the case,” said Jeff Lungren, spokesman for James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House judiciary committee.
The new rules apply only to new passports issued after October 26, meaning that people with documents issued before the deadline will still be able to enter the US without a visa or biometric information.
Sir Digby called for a further six-month extension to the deadline, which has already been postponed by a year. But Mr Sensenbrenner wrote to the European Commission last week that another delay was “highly unlikely”.
Mr Lungren suggested that Europeans whose passports expire in the next few months could avoid problems by renewing their document before October 26.
More than 4.5m British passport holders visit the US each year, spending nearly $7bn while they are there.