Saturday

23rd Feb 2019

EU chokes on US visa dispute

  • Obama is in Europe to meet the British, French and German leaders this week (Photo: whitehouse.gov)

Bulgaria and Romania want the EU to impose visas on US nationals. It probably won’t happen. But EU officials’ attempts to “wiggle” out of the situation haven’t gone down well.

The two countries want the EU to go ahead because Americans can enter any EU country without a permit, but the US doesn’t give the same perks to people from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania.

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  • About 10 million Americans visit the EU each year (Photo: andynash)

“We are EU members for 10 years now and we don’t undertsand why we should be treated differently. It's difficult for politicians to explain it to people at home,” a Bulgarian diplomatic source told EUobserver.

“We might not be as vocal as the Romanians, but we’re sticking together.”

A Romanian source said Romania would also vote to reimpose US visas in the EU Council, where member states meet.

“This is our chance [to get visa reciprocity],” the contact said.

The “chance” arises from an EU law which said that if the US didn’t back down by 12 April then the European Commission was to reinstate visas in return.

They didn’t back down.

The mini-crisis threatens to poison transatlantic relations and to cost billions of euros in lost tourist income. But it’s unlikely to end in visa war.

Any EU reaction would have to be backed by a majority of EU states and by the European Parliament to enter into life.

But Poland, the largest member of the group, is the least keen to go ahead.

“Poland isn’t trying to take the lead on this. We’re trying to get the [US] visa-waiver bilaterally in a spirit of good will,” a Polish contact said.

The source said that Warsaw is “torn” between ensuring that EU institutions “take care of their legal obligations” and “lack of will to spoil [US] relations.”

Hard lobbying

The EU visa decision is due in early July, shortly before a Nato summit in Warsaw where Poland is to call for US troops on its soil.

Croatia and Cyprus are also waiting for the outcome of bilateral US talks before deciding whether to join Bulgaria and Romania.

“We are lobbying very hard in Washington … We’re not pushing for visas for US citizens immediately,” a Croatian source said.

Even if they all wanted to reinstate US visas, they would be miles away from having a majority in the council’s population-weighted voting system.

“I don’t think visas will be reinstated,” an EU diplomat said.

The EU commission’s softly-softly approach to the US has made tempers flare in Brussels, however.

The council and the European Parliament’s reading of EU visa law is that the commission was “obliged” to propose a legal act on reinstating visas and then to wait for their votes.

The commission instead asked them to “take a position”, by 12 July, on how to proceed.

The commission’s reading is that if there’s a negative "position", it doesn’t have to put forward the act on visa reinstatement.

'One option is to do nothing'

“The wiggle room is that the regulation requires us to take external relations into account, and so it may be that we don't indeed [adopt the visa act],” an EU source said.

It angered Bulgarian and Romanian diplomats. It also angered MEPs and caused confusion in the council.

The centre-right Spanish MEP who co-wrote the EU visa law, Augustin Diaz de Mera, was “frightening” in his criticism in a committee hearing on Wednesday (20 April), an EU parliament source said.

All the big groups, except the conservative and British-led ECR group, accused the commission of dirty tricks.

The parliament contact said no one knows what a “position” is because “it’s a totally new thing that the commission came up with.”

They said MEPs might take it to mean a vote on a non-binding resolution or they might ignore it.

“One option is to do nothing. We could refuse to reply,” the contact said.

An EU diplomat said the council hasn’t set a date for initial talks. Asked whether EU states would vote on their “position” or adopt a statement by unanimity, he said: “I don’t know … the commission hasn’t followed normal procedure.”

EU and US edge toward visa fiasco

The European Commission will next week hold “political” talks on how to deal with a legal deadline for imposing visas on US and Canadian nationals.

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