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Europe Struggles to End US Visa Restrictions

Visa-free travel to the United States remains one area in which not all EU countries are treated equally. A growing number of side deals are undercutting the bloc's efforts to negotiate a collective policy.

The US and EU flags

The EU and US are having difficulty getting the winds of travel blowing in the same direction

Estonia and Latvia want their citizens to be able to travel to the United States without having to apply for a visa first. The "visa waiver" program is a comfort citizens from 15 European countries, including Germany, have enjoyed for years. But as the EU has grown, the US has been reluctant to extend the same welcome to new members, forcing many EU citizens to apply for visas even for short business trips or holidays to the US.

The pair of Baltic countries signed separate bilateral agreements with the US on Wednesday, March 12, which start both countries down the road to easy trans-Atlantic travel. The Czech Republic already has a similar agreement with the US, and Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary hoped to sign deals "as soon as possible," a Lithuanian diplomat said Wednesday.

Visa application with EU flag

It's not always easy to get a visa

But the deals could erode the EU's attempt to negotiate easier travel for all of its 27 member states. The European Commission warned member states against separate negotiations, saying that this would undercut the EU's collective bargaining power. The EU is also worried that countries will agree to give the US too much personal data about airline passengers, which US authorities say is needed for security reasons.

Estonia, Latvia not willing to wait

But Estonia and Latvia said they decided to sign bilateral deals rather than wait out lengthy negotiations between Brussels and Washington.

"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," Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins said.

The visa regulations have been a sore point for those not in the "visa waiver" program, most of them ex-communist countries which have become vocal US supporters since breaking away from Moscow's sphere of influence at the end of the 1980s.

Air traffic controller with airplane

Some EU countries don't want to wait

Estonia and Latvia left the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the EU and NATO in 2004. They have supplied troops for the US-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US entry rules are linked to American concerns that citizens from poor countries will use tourist visas to immigrate illegally to the US. But Estonia and Latvia have shown they're worthy of a waiver, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters.

"This is a milestone occasion, a major step forward," he added.

EU wants to take the lead

The European Commission began its own visa-free travel negotiations with the US on Wednesday. European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini urged member states to stop separate visa negotiations with the US, which he called an area "of European responsibility."

"I would expect on the basis of a common approach that European Union member states stop negotiating with the United States in EU fields" of jurisdiction, he told reporters.

Speaking on the sidelines of an EU ministerial conference in Slovenia, Frattini said the EU ambassadors of the 27 member states had unanimously agreed on a common approach to the exploratory talks.

German passport

A German passport like this will get you into the US

The issue is expected to top the agenda of Thursday's EU-US justice meeting with Michael Chertoff in Slovenia, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. US officials said they would continue making bilateral deals with EU members.

"We have arrangements that we are working out with individual member states, and I would expect that that is going to continue absent some sort of agreement within the EU to the contrary," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "If the EU has some dispute internal to the EU, then the EU needs to work that out."

Speaking at the end of the ministerial conference at Brdo castle, Frattini said Wednesday that the travel memorandums signed Latvia and Estonia "should not be considered as operational documents, rather as political ones."

"No member state will be implementing political memorandums [bilaterally signed with the US] on areas that are under EU responsibility," Frattini told reporters, before admitting he could do little to stop them from doing so.

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