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Europe

EU Faces Break in Ranks Over US Visa Policy

In a move which risks European Union efforts for a common visa policy, several member states have said they were ready to break ranks and sign bilateral deals with the United States.

Plane flying against a blue sky with white condensation plumes

Czech citizens may be able to travel to the US without a visa as soon as September

Interior ministers from Latvia and Slovakia indicated at a meeting held in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 28, that their governments were ready to follow the example set by the Czech Republic and conclude separate visa agreements with the United States.

Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer signed a bilateral air security and visa accord with the US during a visit to Washington on Tuesday.

A man gets his visa stamped upon entry to the US

Several EU countries are frustrated that they still need a visa for US entry

As part of the deal, the Czech Republic has agreed to strengthen cooperation on air security and provide the US with passengers' data. However, the accord surrenders more passenger information than a broader deal reached on behalf all 27-member nations.

Brussels say the Czech-US deal contravenes EU rules and jeopardizes efforts to forge a common approach on the issue.

"We cannot tolerate any violation or discrepancy ... from European legislation in visa-related matters," EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said on Thursday.

EU backs down

On Wednesday, the European Commission said it reserved the right to take action against Prague. Frattini, however, said he would not take the Czech Republic to court for now because the deal it signed was only an outline pact and its implementation was key.

The Czech Republic is one of 11 EU member states -- former Communist countries plus Greece -- whose citizens are obliged to have visas, even for a short stay, in order to travel to the US.

Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer said his country had no alternative as EU-US talks had failed to get the Czech Republic, an EU member since 2004, into the US visa scheme.

"A well-fed man does not believe a hungry one," Langer told reporters on Thursday. "We've been waiting for four years to share not only the duties but also the freedoms [of being in the EU]. We won't have to wait in line, we won't have to pay for visas, we'll feel like a real partner."

A US air marshal points a gun at a potential terrorist during a mock action

Part of the Czech visa deal would allow air marshals on flights to the US

Langer added that Slovakia, Hungary, the Baltic states, Malta and Greece were also "hungry."

After Thursday's meeting, Frattini conceded that progress had not been fast enough.

"There was unanimous consensus about [the need to] speed up negotiations with the US on the basis of a common approach," he said.

Frattini called on the US to stop trying to reach bilateral deals with individual EU countries and asked member states not to rush into new agreements with Washington ahead of an EU-US justice and home affairs meeting scheduled for March 12-13 in Slovenia.

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