June 22, 2006
The new members attained EU membership but not the right to visa-free travel to the USThe European Commission has warned that it might take measures to force Washington to abolish visa restrictions for EU citizens.It is a common complaint: ‘I just want to see the US and they won’t give me a visa,’ goes one version often heard in Poland or the Czech Republic. Another, more bitter, lament is over the long waiting times, and high cost, of applying for a tourist visa that is unlikely to be issued.
And since 10 new countries joined the EU in 2004, the argument has gotten louder — as US borders have gotten tighter.
But now, the European Commission is threatening to take action against the US if Washington fails to prove that it is trying to abolish visa restrictions on some member states, an EU official said this week.
The official, speaking ahead of the EU-US summit in Vienna on Wednesday, said the commission could insist that American diplomats and military personnel be obliged to have visas to travel in the EU, or demand economic and trade sanctions.
“I cannot exclude that the commission will propose measures that it is entitled to propose,” he said.
Currently, travellers from the nine of the 10 newest European Union states — Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, with the exception of Slovenia — still have to apply for visas when they travel to the United States, even for a short stay. Of the older member states, people from Greece also need a visa.
Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: EU countries are adopting biometric passports by the end of 2006
The US policy has angered the new EU members, many of them from ex-communist Eastern Europe.
The EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that another option might be to oblige all US citizens — not just diplomats and troops — to obtain visas.
“I don’t know if there would be the required support” from the EU’s member states, he said, adding that such a step “would obviously have a massive negative influence on our travel and trade.”
He refused to detail what economic or trade measures could be taken, saying only: “there is no limit for the fantasy” as to what might be done.
Real progress needed
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, is to release a new report in July detailing the progress made on the visa-waiver issue.
It wants Washington to provide clear, verifiable criteria for the 10 EU members to be able to have the visa-waiver introduced, as well as a timetable for it to come into force. The US refuses to do this.
Bildunterschrift: US borders have gotten tighter and more unwelcome
“There has to be real progress,” the official said. “We don’t see that progress, frankly, in our talks with the department of homeland security, and there is considerable pressure in Congress to do just the opposite: that is to scrap the whole visa waiver program.”
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US has increasingly tightened its borders, especially because members of the plot had legitimate or expired visas. The US also angered would-be visitors last year when it announced that only holders of electronic passports will be eligible for visa-free travel to the US in future.
Europeans, who are expected to adopt the so-called biometric passports this year, which contain a special chip, are concerned over privacy issues. Such chips store personal information and facial data.