The move, which critics predict will greatly increase the power of the emerging European bureaucracy over its 345 million citizens, is happening by stealth with their piecemeal introduction.
The cards are being pushed as the ultimate answer to fraud, terrorism and illegal immigration, with the aim of keeping track of citizens' records in a borderless Europe. A smartcard can hold some 30 kilobytes, the equivalent of seven closely typed A4 pages, but technological advances are expected to achieve a 30-fold increase in memory, and with simple numeric coding that will amount to an encyclopaedia on each card.
Schiphol airport in Amsterdam provides a glimpse of the future. In co-operation with JFK airport in New York it has issued volunteers with smartcards the size of credit cards which contain personal data with a digitised reading of the passenger's 'hand geometry'. A quick swipe of the card combined with the hand pressed against a machine reader is all that is required to pass immigration.
Britain plans to link all National Health Service computers as a first stage to the introduction of a national card system that could double as an identity card. The NHS has conducted trials for a smartcard, the 'Carecard', in Exeter.
France announced yesterday that it was replacing all paper-based identity documents with smartcards by 1995. Other countries are following suit, but Germany and the Netherlands, where there is public resistance, have introduced universal computerised health cards instead.
Jan Kuhlmann, a privacy researcher at Bremen university, said that employers were demanding to see the health records of job applicants. 'In future it will be easier because the information will be on a card in the person's pocket.'
Simon Davies, of Privacy International, a civil liberties group, said: 'There is a dangerous seduction associated with smartcard technology. There urgently needs to be a debate about the implications for society as a whole.' Others point to the dangers of the new inter-governmental powers of the Maastricht treaty. Information on individuals, ostensibly private, can be distributed to police, customs and immigration forces via centralised computer networks in Strasbourg and The Hague.
The EU authorities will soon be able to conduct electronic dragnet searches - 'data matching' - to build a profile of suspects. 'This is the technological equivalent of a general warrant on the entire population,' Mr Davies said. 'Data matching is directly equivalent to arbitrary investigation without cause or suspicion.'