U.S. defies EU on bilateral visa waver agreements

Published 13 March 2008

Most EU countries have visa waiver agreements with the United States — but not 11 of the 12 states which joined the EU since 2004; the EU wants to negotiate a package deal for these countries, but the United States prefers bilateral deals so it can pick and choose among the new EU members; the EU says this violates the EU rules

The United States signed up Estonia and Latvia yesterday to bilateral deals which will lead to visa-free travel, risking further European Union ire a day ahead of tough EU-U.S. security talks, which begin today. U.S. DHS secretary Michael Chertoff signed the deals in Estonia and Latvia a day before he was due to meet European Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini in Slovenia. The Czech Republic signed a similar deal last month, sparking much uproar within the EU. The executive European Commission and some EU states have accused the signatories of ignoring EU solidarity and the bloc’s competence on visas. Critics said that pact infringed on the EU’s authority over visa and border policy and voiced fear that Washington may use such deals to hand over more intrusive personal data on air passengers. Prague says it acted legally.

Frattini said on Wednesday that today’s talks with the United States would be friendly but tough because of the signature of these individual pacts. “The ministers agreed that memoranda already signed and to be signed by other member states should not be considered as operational documents (but) rather as political documents,” Frattini told a news conference after a meeting of EU interior ministers in Slovenia. Chertoff said Washington was not undermining EU powers, adding signatories would have to wait a long time for visa-free travel if they waited for a deal at the level of the whole EU. “I have assured our European partners in Brussels that we have the utmost respect for EU law and EU competences,” he told a news conference in Riga, Latvia’s capital.

Most EU states have U.S. visa waivers, but not eleven of the twelve mostly former communist states that joined the bloc in 2004 and 2007, as well as older member Greece.