Brussels urges EU states not break rules for US visa deals

12 March 2008

(BRDO PRI KRANJU) – The EU’s top justice official urged European nations Wednesday not to break the bloc’s rules to secure visa free US travel, as Estonia and Latvia inked controversial deals.

“I would expect on the basis of a common approach that European Union member states stop negotiating with the United States in EU fields” of jurisdiction, Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini told reporters.

Frattini conceded that “I cannot block member states … from signing political agreements,” but he warned: “One thing is a political agreement, another is implementing rules of the agreement into action.”

“No member state will be implementing political memorandums on areas that are under EU responsability,” he said.

His remarks came after Estonia and Latvia signed memorandums of understanding on flight security with the United States in an effort to enter the US visa waiver programme.

It also came on the eve of key EU-US justice talks in Brdo Pri Kranju castle, just outside the capital Ljubljana, to be attended by US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who signed the Estonian and Latvian deals.

Tired of the slow pace of negotiations led by the commission, the Czech Republic signed such an accord with Washington last month in an effort to enter the US programme, setting off a chain reaction.

Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary also hope to sign deals “as soon as possible”, officials from those countries said, and perhaps as soon as Friday while Chertoff is still in Europe.

The issue has seriously undermined the bargaining powers of the commission, which is guardian of the EU’s treaties and has jurisdiction in visa reciprocity, and wants all 27 nations in the US programme by the end of 2008.

Without the waiver, currently only enjoyed by 15 nations, citizens from Greece and 11 of the 12 newest states — Slovenia aside — are obliged to have visas, even for a short stay, when they arrive on US territory.

But Brussels is concerned that countries concluding deals would surrender far more information about their citizens to the United States than allowed under EU rules, and it has threatened legal action if the states cross this line.

The United States for its part has given no guarantees that countries signing the bilateral memorandums would even win the visa waiver so prized by their citizens.

Earlier Wednesday, Frattini announced that he had finally been given a mandate by EU countries to negotiate on their behalf.

“I’m sure we will be able, I’m optimistic, in discussions with our American friends, to put right and clear boundaries between what is of European competence and what is not on the basis of the common approach,” he said.

Slovenia’s Interior Minister Dragutin Mate, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said the memorandums with the US had been the subject of lengthy and intense discussion in recent days.

“We have cleared out some questions that had been the subject of confusion and caused misunderstandings,” said Mate. “We have a draft that could be acceptable for the US, too.”

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