11th Dec 2023

Seals and visas threaten EU-Canada rift

  • A save the seals campaign in Strasbourg, the seat of the EU parliament, in May (Photo: EUobserver)

Canada's decision to impose visas on Czech citizens and the EU's decision to ban seal products are emerging as major irritants in bilateral relations.

Both issues came up at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (27 July), the first high level event under the Swedish EU presidency.

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The Czech Republic used the opportunity to complain against Ottawa's unilateral re-imposition of visa requirements due to a surge in Czech asylum applications. The move, in mid-July, comes after two years of visa-free travel.

"For us, this is not an issue between the Czech Republic and Canada but between the EU and Canada," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt commented after the EU meeting.

Mr Bildt called the Canadian decision "sad" and said it has caused "deep concern" in the bloc.

But he ruled out any EU reaction before the European Commission in September puts forward a legal analysis of the situation.

The commission will assess Prague's call on fellow member states to show "reciprocity" - or in other words, to re-introduce visas against Canada. EU states will then have a further three months to consider their reaction.

"As the presidency of the EU, we are in favour of this reciprocity," Sweden's migration minister Tobias Billstroem told AFP, despite the Canadian opinion that such a counter-reaction is out of the question.

Germany, France and the UK could face harsh consequences in terms of trade if they retaliate on the Czech Republic's side.

Canada says 1,720 mostly Roma-origin Czech citizens applied for asylum in the first six months of 2009 compared to half that figure in the whole of 2008. The Czech Roma have complained of discrimination in their home country.

"We need to streamline the system to provide faster protection for real victims of persecution, while showing bogus claimants the door much more quickly," Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney said on Monday.

"Until we're able to come up with reforms along those lines, unfortunately, the visa policy becomes our only recourse."

Seal angst

In another matter set to annoy in Canada, EU ministers on Monday rubber stamped a ban on EU seal product imports "in response to concerns about the animal welfare aspects of seal hunting practices."

Canada - which culls about 300,000 seals off its east coast each year – has said the EU's decision is unscientific and plans to challenge the move at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva.

"We are very disappointed with this ruling. We believe strongly this violates the World Trade Organisation guidelines," Canada's international trade minister Stockwell Day said, according to the BBC. "It is in our view inappropriate that a trade decision is taken which is not based on science."

The ban is due to affect the 2010 hunting season and halt annual trade worth a symbolic €4.2 million, according to media reports.

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