US visa talks criticised by MEPs
Renate Goldirova
April 23, 2008

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – MEPs have strongly criticised both Washington and the go-it-alone attitude of several member states for opening bilateral talks on tightened travel security measures in return for visa-free travel.

“We express our regret at Washington’s choice to enter into bilateral agreements with the recent members of the EU,” Italian MEP Claudio Fava, speaking on behalf of the socialists in the European Parliament, said on Wednesday (23 April), describing the move as “completely unacceptable”.

“The US must respect the union’s political unity (…) We should also remind this to member states,” Mr Fava added.

A similar message was echoed by conservatives, the parliament’s biggest group, with Polish MEP Urszula Gacek saying that Washington “cannot exert pressure on individual nations to break EU guidelines, especially in the sensitive areas such as revealing passenger information in greater detail than the EU allows”.

Dutch Liberal Sophia in’t Veld demanded information on the ongoing bilateral negotiations involving seven EU states and Washington. The countries concerned are expected in summer to sign so-called implementation protocols – legal documents spelling out the security obligations aimed at securing visa-free travel to the United States.

After being approached by the US administration, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta and Slovakia signed a memorandum of understanding on the issue and are now discussing the details of the implementation protocols.

But several euro-deputies from the respective countries backed their national governments’ line during Wednesday’s debate.

The Czech non-attached MEP, Jana Bobosikova, called on the European Commission to stop punishing those that are trying to thwart terrorism through data-sharing agreements.

According to Polish MEP Konrad Szimanski from the UEN group, the commission alone “is not always able to act” and there should be no surprise that member states took an individual path.

‘Comparable measures’ imposed on Americans
But France has backed the commission’s push for more unity on the issue, giving Brussels an important boost as it will be the EU presidency country in the second half of 2008 and therefore closely involved in EU-US negotiations on the issue.

“We want as common an EU position as possible,” French European Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet was cited as saying by AP (22 April), calling on EU governments to give up bilateral talks with the US in favour of a stronger common EU position.

On Friday (18 April), EU interior ministers agreed that the planned talks with Washington will be orchestrated via a twin-track approach, under which the European Commission and individual member states will be allowed to negotiate only in areas that fall under their own powers.

The European Commission, for its part, said on Wednesday that it would table its own requirements during the EU-US talks, including the principle of reciprocity – something that would see the Americans eventually facing “comparable” security obligations.

“What we intend to do is to pay particular attention to ensure that any agreement is founded on the principal of reciprocity, on the respect for fundamental rights and individual freedoms, including the protection of data and the right to privacy,” commission vice-president Jacques Barrot told MEPs.

The negotiation mandate clearly mentions the principle of reciprocity in relation to the US-proposed electronic system of travel authorisation (ESTA), information exchange and standards for travel documents.

© 2008
Printed from 29.04.2008