The European Union and the United States signed and agreement in Washington Thursday that paves the way for rapidly expanding to more European ports a U.S. program for identifying containers at high risk of tempering by terrorists. The United States will now negotiate directly with the European Commission on how to implement the Container Security Initiative in member European ports, thus ending friction within the EU over bilateral security deals struck between the United States and individual countries outside the EU framework. Robert Bonner, commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, said that the new arrangement could quickly enable the agency to set up CSI programs in 10 to 12 more European ports. A key component of the agreement creates working groups to establish criteria for admitting additional ports in CSI, he said. The agreement is significant because it removes bureaucratic and legal barriers to full cooperation between the two largest trading blocs in the world. The agreement formalizes an understanding in principle last November to expand existing mutual assistance in customs matters, including cooperation on container security. The initial agreement had to be approved by the EU Council of Ministers before it could be signed and implemented. "With this agreement we put our enemies on notice that we will work together to protect our people and commercial commerce," said US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Eighteen countries have declared their intent to participate in the Container Security Initiative, a program launched by Customs and Border Protection in the Aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The program pushes the US cargo inspection process overseas to get a jump on suspicious leads before a dangerous shipping container enters the United States. US Customs officers stationed in non-US ports use shipping data filed by carriers prior to departure to alert the domestic customs administration about which containers to target for X-ray and radiation scans. CBP has inspectors at 18 of 38 foreign ports enlisted in CSI to date, including the European ports of Rotterdam in the Netherlands; Le Havre, France; Bremerhaven and Hamburg, Germany; Antwerp, Belgium; Felixstowe, United Kingdom; and Genoa, Italy. The new agreement gives the EU equal status in helping set trans-Atlantic policy for securing global maritime trade, US and EU officials said. The agreement does not affect CSI agreement already in place, but gives the EU authority to help develop the standards and criteria for other ports to participate in the program, Bonner said. The pact also applies to the seven eastern European nations that will become members of the EU in May, said Robert Verrue, the EC's director general for customs and taxation. Together the two sides will share best practices for customs' security controls, coordinate risk management standards for selecting containers for closer inspection, establish common definitions of standards and procedures for collecting and sharing advance shipping data, and work together to improve automated systems and screening technologies, US and EU officials said. The first meeting of customs experts from the United States, EU member states and the European Commission will take place in early May, according to an EU statement. The goal is to move towards an interoperable supply chain security system that is the same around the world so international traders do not have to adapt import and export procedures to meet different security standards in each country in which they do business, Ridge said.