27th May 2017

EU threatens sanctions over US visa issue

  • Visa free travel for "new Europe" features high on Wednsday's EU-US summit in Vienna (Photo: European Commission)

The EU is set to urge the US to allow visa free travel to citizens from new member states and Greece or face similar restrictions from the European side.

A row over the US two-tier visa system for Europeans will feature at the forthcoming EU-US summit, starting on Wednesday (21 June) in Vienna.

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European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso highlighted the issue during his visit to the US earlier this year and is planning to press for a more concrete reply at the summit.

"We took president Bush seriously when he said he wanted to lift restrictions on visas for travel...We think it is time the US does that," an EU official told journalists ahead of the high-level meeting.

But he added that despite all the promises, "We don't see that progress. Just the opposite, we see a tendency in Washington towards scrapping the visa waiver programme for security reasons."

The US visa-free regime is currently applied to 14 'old' EU member states plus Slovenia but citizens from nine of the countries that joined the bloc in 2004, as well as Greece, are required to have a visa even for a short stay in the US.

Washington has introduced roadmaps with individual states to deal with concrete issues that prevent their entry to the free travel scheme, but Brussels argues there is no clear timeline and criteria by which to judge progress.

The EU will review its own travel policy in July and is threatening to impose retaliatory measures, such as visa requirements on US diplomats or soldiers travelling to Europe or economic and trade sanctions, if Washington does not change its stance.

"I cannot exclude that the commission will propose measures that it is entitled to propose," the EU official indicated.

But experts suggest it is unlikely the White House will move any faster on the issue, despite EU threats, as the conditions in these travel arrangements are set by laws adopted by the US congress and influenced by immigration and terrorism concerns.

Poland wins minor concession

The new member states are also lobbying hard to change the policy but only Poland has so far achieved a minor step forward, as the US senate adopted an amendment allowing a two-year trial period for visa free travel to citizens from countries that have sent over 300 soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Only Warsaw fulfils that criterium, but it is anyway not clear whether the proposal will pass through congress.

"We had a flood of phone calls from almost all the eastern European embassies, asking why we are making an exception for Poland," the US state department spokesman was quoted as saying by the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

"We have signed roadmaps for these countries, as with Poland, or plans to lift visa requirements and we want to stick to these," he added.

MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary

The European Parliament took the first step towards launching the Article 7 procedure against Hungary for backsliding on democracy. The process might lead to sanctions, but Orban is not backing down.

MEPs preparing to crack down on Orban

The EU assembly's largest group is split by its "enfant terrible", but enough MEPs are likely to abstain or vote Yes on the "Article 7" crackdown over Orban's illiberal rule.

Macron and Merkel to 'reconstruct' the EU

The French and German leaders will present a common proposal to deepen and strengthen the EU and the eurozone. They say they are ready to change the EU treaties.

Schulz fails to beat Merkel in German home state

Former EU parliament leader, Martin Schulz, says the defeat of his social-democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia is "difficult". The elections showed that a "Schulz effect" does not (yet) exist.

Austria heading for snap elections

Foreign minister Kurz has taken leadership of the conservative party in what could lead to an alliance with the far-right.

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