By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Belgium said on Monday they had reached an agreement that will allow U.S.-bound passengers from Brussels to undergo U.S. customs and immigration checks before departing Europe.
The "preclearance" agreement will allow passengers to then proceed directly to connecting flights or to exit the airport after they land in the United States.
Once the program is operational, Brussels will be the first location for U.S. preclearance operations in mainland Europe.
Most Americans are still barred from traveling to the European Union because of the high number of coronavirus cases, but there are some limited exceptions. The United States also bars most people who have recently been in the EU from traveling to the United States.
The agreement has been under discussion for more than five years.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in Brussels will conduct the same immigration, customs, and agriculture inspections of international air travelers currently performed when passengers arrived in the United States.
"This bilateral agreement strengthens the U.S.-Belgian security partnership and will help our countries stop bad actors at the earliest possible point in the travel continuum,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan.
The agreement, which was signed in Brussels by U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Ronald J. Gidwitz and Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Defence Philippe Goffin, must be ratified by the Belgian Parliament, and technical agreements must be completed with the Brussels Airport Company.
The United States currently has 16 preclearance locations in six countries: Ireland, Aruba, the Bahamas; Bermuda; United Arab Emirates and Canada. In 2019, CBP personnel stationed abroad precleared 22 million travelers, representing over 16% of all commercial air travelers arriving in the United States.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)