EU interior ministers agreed on Friday to let the bloc launch talks on visa-free travel with the United States, almost two months after seven member states broke ranks by signing their own deals with Washington.
EU ministers hope that all member states will be admitted in the US visa waiver program
The decision authorizes the EU's executive body, the European Commission, to begin talks with the US government on behalf of member states. A team from the commission's justice department is due to visit Washington early next week, said Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot.
"We agreed that our common goal is to ensure that all member states are admitted in the visa waiver program as soon as possible," he said.
The visit shows the commission's "strong will to end the injustice that implies that there are two categories of EU citizens," those who merit visa-free travel to the US visa and those who do not, he said.
The aim of the talks is to provide visa-free travel to the US for all EU citizens while satisfying US demands for security information on passengers.
A political problem
Jacques Barrot wants all EU citizens to be treated equally
Restrictions on travel to the US have been a political problem in the EU ever since its enlargement to take in 10 new members, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, in 2004, and the subsequent accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.
At present, EU citizens from all of the older member states, with the exception of Greece, do not need a visa to enter the United States.
The EU's central organs in Brussels are meant to be negotiating on the issue of visa waivers for the new members, but in the almost four years since the 10 new countries joined the bloc, talks on the issue with the US have not yet started.
On Feb. 26, the Czech Republic signed a bilateral deal with the US paving the way for eventual visa-free status in return for security information on the passengers carried. Six other states subsequently signed similar deals.
Unity at stake
The US could grant visa-free travel in exchange for security information
But commission officials warned that such moves could run the risk of breaching EU rules, since some of the information in question was the preserve of the EU as a whole, and individual member states did not have the right to issue it.
Following the bilateral deals, EU member states and the commission agreed to follow a "twin-track approach", in which individual states and the commission would each negotiate with the US on sharing the information which it controlled.
Friday's meeting authorized the commission to pursue its track in a "balanced compromise" arrived at through "constructive" talks, Slovenian Interior Minister Dragutin Mate said.
However, the question of exactly which data are within the purview of the EU and which data belong to member states has not been fully defined, commission officials said.
EU members and the commission will decide who is responsible for each piece of information once the US presents a finalized list of exactly which data it wants, the officials said.