Estonia, Latvia sign visa deals with US, despite EU concerns

RIGA (AFP) — Estonia and Latvia signed deals Wednesday paving the way for visa-free travel to the United States and dealing a fresh blow to Brussels’ efforts to secure an EU-wide accord.

US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff signed an agreement with Estonian Interior Minister Juri Pihl in Tallin before flying on to Riga and repeating the ceremony with Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins.

“This is a milestone occasion, a major step forward,” Chertoff told reporters in the Latvian capital.

The agreements set the two EU members and former communist states firmly on the path of entry to the US “visa-waiver” programme, currently enjoyed by just 15 nations.

In return, they have undertaken to provide more personal data about airline passengers, which US authorities say is needed for security reasons.

European Union officials oppose such bilateral accords, arguing that they undermine the 27-nation bloc’s common negotiating stance.

Latvia and Estonia followed the lead of the Czech Republic which, tired of the slow pace of negotiations led by the European Union, signed a deal with Washington last month.

Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary are expected to follow suit.

The European Commission argues that it has jurisdiction over visa reciprocity and that therefore only it can negotiate with third countries on the EU’s behalf.

The commission is also concerned that countries concluding such deals would surrender far more information about their citizens than allowed under EU rules, and has threatened legal action if states cross this line.

Riekstins said Latvia had decided it was time to go it alone.

“As an EU country we support the common European effort, but there are issues which we can resolve bilaterally with the US,” he said.

“Why should our citizens wait for some unique agreement involving all member states? The free movement of our citizens is one of the interests of our country,” he added.

The issue will top the agenda of Thursday’s EU-US justice meeting with Michael Chertoff in Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Without the waiver, visitors need visas for even a short stay in the United States, even though it is easy for US nationals to travel the other way.

“If we were to wait until the last EU state was qualified (for the visa-waiver programme), countries like Latvia and Estonia would have to wait a very long time,” Chertoff said in Riga.

The visa regulations rankle because most of the EU members outside the programme are ex-communist states which have become highly vocal US allies since Moscow lost its grip on the region at the end of the 1980s.

Estonia and Latvia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the EU and NATO in 2004. They have also supplied troops for the US-spearheaded campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US entry rules are also linked to concerns that citizens of countries with lower living standards than in much of Western Europe sometimes use tourist visas as a ploy to migrate illegally to the United States.