The European Parliament's resolution demanding visas from Americans unless the US lifts restrictions on all EU countries sent many prospective tourists scrambling last week. But how realistic is the threat?
Reading the headlines, Andrea Schoellkopf of Albuquerque, New Mexico was among those panicking about how this might affect the summer trip to Israel and Europe she'd been carefully choreographing for months as a gift to her son for his high school graduation. That she might face barriers to visiting London, Paris or Brussels had been the last thing on her mind.
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"I had checked with Israel first and made sure we didn't need any extra documentation," Schoellkopf said, but that's where her concerns began and ended. "As an American I began traveling to Europe in the mid 1990s, so it has only gotten easier to travel there over the years. Even the French, who had the reputation of not speaking English to tourists because we are in their French-speaking country, had been much more welcoming to us on our trip two years ago and more likely to offer to speak English."
US citizens currently enjoy visa-free travel throughout the EU. However, the March 2 resolution reminded the European Commission that it is now legally obliged to temporarily require visas for US citizens because Washington still requires visas from citizens of EU member Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania. Lawmakers emphasize a two-year waiting period ended April 12, 2016 and now demand the commission act "within two months."
That the measure is non-binding failed to assuage many in corporate America. "We had some clients calling for information in order to understand more precisely what is happening on the EU level," Andreia Ghimis, a specialist in the Brussels office of global corporate immigration law firm Fragomen Worldwide, told DW. "A lot of multinationals have been worried about their people no longer being able to come to the EU without a visa."
European Parliament: if Canada can do it...
The head of the parliamentary committee which prepared the resolution, British lawmaker Claude Moraes, notes that Americans have had the better end of this deal for many years now. "The United States, with all the rights for its citizens to come to the EU, is being unfair in singling out five [EU] countries," Moraes told DW, explaining that now it's even more urgent than ever to get a deal hammered out with the uncertainty surrounding Trump Administration policies on travel.
Moraes says excuses used by previous US administrations to maintain visas no longer have "sufficient justification." These include claims that residents of countries requiring visas don't have adequate security themselves to verify identities and documents, that their national GDPs are so low travelers are likely to become "economic migrants" or that their citizens' records on overstayed visas are in fact too high to meet the US threshhold for visa-free status.
Moraes rejects those arguments. "There's been a material change in circumstances," he said. "The tipping point is that other countries like Japan, Australia and Canada [from December 2017] are giving full reciprocity, so in our view there is no further justification for the United States."
Moraes expects the commission to seek a resolution with the US this summer at a keenly-anticipated June summit. If none is forthcoming, he explains, the commission is bound - even overdue - to adopt what's called a "delegated act" and impose the visas for one year, unless there are objections from the European Council or the European Parliament. He acknowledges there are serious political and commercial interests at stake but doesn't think those should be allowed to override the lack of reciprocity.
"Visitors will always come to both continents," Moraes said. "It's essential. Business travelers and tourists will come. The issue is whether people have to go through further economic and bureaucratic barriers in order to do it and what that means economically, culturally and in other ways."
Back in New Mexico, Andrea Schoellkopf accepts the demand for reciprocity as reasonable, while hoping there will be a resolution. "If our current government is going to impose travel restrictions on residents of other countries, those countries certainly have the right to do the same for Americans," she said. "While this trip is being planned hopefully with enough time to take care of whatever is required - if it's required - it saddens me to think that we may no longer be able to travel as freely in the world as we have enjoyed."
Lawyer Andreia Ghimis says her office is just trying to read the tea leaves and that both sides are fairly unpredictable at the moment. "We are telling [clients] that we are keeping an eye on the developments and reaching out to institutions to learn about any dramatic developments," she said. "But for now it's a wait-and-see game on both sides."