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Americas

EU lawmakers in Washington demand expansion of visa-waiver status

On a visit to Washington, European Parliamentarians told the Trump administration it must allow all 28 EU countries equal visa-free access to the US. There are still five EU members which have second-tier travel rights.

European Council President Donald Tusk and President Donald Trump met in Brussels

European Council President Donald Tusk and President Donald Trump met in Brussels

The gap between US and European approaches to most trans-Atlantic issues has never been so wide. 

"Trump's 'America First' doctrine, with its emphasis on unilateralism and economic nationalism and downplaying the importance of values, is in sharp contrast to the EU's global outlook," Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW. "The Trump administration and Europe are at odds when it comes to issues ranging from free trade and battling climate change to commitment to supporting democracy and human rights overseas."

It would be hard to find another committee in the European Parliament (EP) that deals with as many of these issues with the US as does the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. Privacy standards, data transfers, visa policies, counter-terrorism strategies: all of it ends up on the table of what's commonly referred to as "LIBE."

The committee, together with members of the economic committee, has just wrapped up its first foray to Washington since President Donald Trump took office. LIBE chair Claude Moraes shared his impressions with DW as he rushed between meetings with the American Civil Liberties Union and national EU diplomats converging at the EP liaison office from their embassies around town. He had delivered a missive to the Trump administration a week ahead of his delegation's arrival which stood up stiff challenges to the White House way of doing business, insisting civil rights and counter-terrorism can and must co-exist.  

Interlocutors in limbo

The word Moraes used to describe the situation inside the Trump administration at the moment is "fragility."

"The first thing is we definitely saw is an administration in transition," Moraes observed, with "massively fewer places filled" than was seen when President Barack Obama came into office, he said. "There's a fragility because a disproportionate number of posts are not filled and where they are filled, our impression is that some of some of the more sensitive issues are very much in transition."

Claude Moraes in the EU parliament

Moraes said he and his colleagues found an understaffed administration in transition

Moraes, a Labour Party MEP for London since 1999, said he didn't by any means want to give the impression that "things are collapsing - they aren't," but the huge gaps have "real implications in the State Department, in commerce, in justice" - in other words, the departments which are the primary partners of the EU. High on the EU's agenda are questions over how the Trump Administration plans to handle the protection of European citizens' private dataafter Trump said there won't be any such protection in the US. The controversial year-old EU-US framework called "Privacy Shield" will see its first review in September.

But, Moraes says, when his committee visited the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which administers Privacy Shield, they found only two of five FTC commission seats filled, six months out from Trump's inauguration.

Unravelling travel blockages

Another top issue for LIBE is the fact that the US excludes five EU countries - Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, Romania and Poland - under its "visa waiver" program, which means citizens of those countries do not need visas to visit the US. The European Parliament has taken a non-binding vote to impose visas on American citizens traveling to Europe unless the US rectifies this situation, but the European Commission would have had to carry the proposal forward - and it openly refused.

Moraes acknowledges he has fights to win in Brussels as well as Washington, but he said it was crucial to bring the matter before the State Department too. "This needs to be resolved," he said. "We were very clear that we don't want second-class status for these five countries. We want visa reciprocity - we are very clear about it."  Moraes said while the European Commission and Council "hold the cards" on the European side, the EP can take various steps, such as bringing legal action. "I wouldn't exaggerate the parliament's role," he said, "but I wouldn't underestimate it either."

Being blunt about the 'Muslim ban'

The other very sensitive issue they brought up with administration officials was Trump's "Muslim ban." Moraes was uncompromising on this. "My view coming from the European Union is that it'sunconstitutional and it's alsomorally wrong," he said. "To me it's based on a [racializing] and religious profiling of countries and it's designed to create and energize a political base. All of these things I think are potentially dangerous things to do."

Moraes believes what happens with this measure will say a lot about the direction the Trump administration will take. "This illustrates a very important moment in US politics and also an interesting moment for the court system and the independence of judges and so on," he said, noting that Europe has its own struggles with democratic value, such as in Poland and Hungary.

He said that makes it even more important to pass the same message about fundamental rights on both sides of the Atlantic. Moraes hopes that, as the courts consider whether the ban is legal under US law, Trump takes another look at the global impact of his decision.

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