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27th Feb 2024

Visa dispute to haunt EU-Canada trade pact

  • Vancouver airport. Nationals of all other 26 EU states don't need a visa to enter Canada (Photo: Scott Beale)

Bulgaria and Romania have raised the spectre of a veto on EU-Canada free trade due to a visa dispute.

"It would be very difficut for the governments of Bulgaria and Romania, under the current circumstances to find arguments to promote the adoption … [of the Canada trade pact] while Canada is still imposing a discriminating treatment to our citizens," the two countries’ EU ambassadors said in a joint letter.

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  • Remains to be seen if Bulgaria and Romania will have the power to veto the trade pact (Photo: Andre Skibinski)

They circulated the text, seen by EUobserver, on Thursday (12 May) ahead of a meeting of EU trade ministers in Brussels on Friday .

The complaint comes amid EU plans to formalise a strategic patnership and free-trade treaty at the next EU-Canada summit, in October.

The reference to "discriminating treatment" concerns the fact that Bulgarian and Romanian nationals need a visa to enter Canada, but Canadians do not need one in return.

"Absence of engagement from the Canadian side and a specific timeline for elimination of the visa requirements … pose serious political predicaments for the Bulgarian government to give its approval for the [trade] agreement," Dimiter Tzantchev, the Bulgarian ambassador, also told EU ministers on Friday.

The envoy spoke at the meeting in place of Bulgaria’s minister.

An EU diplomat said Tzantchev’s remarks were met by silence from other member states.

The diplomat also said the European Commission assured Bulgaria and Romania that it was battling for visa reciprocity, but said they should not mix the visa dispute with the trade pact.

It remains to be seen if Bulgaria and Romania would have the power to veto the trade accord.

Commission lawyers are still deciding if the pact is a mixed treaty between the EU, member states and Canada, or a simple EU-Canada deal.

If it is mixed, it must ratified by consensus in the EU Council and by all 28 national legislatures, giving Bucharest and Sofia the option to block. If it is simple, it can be ratified by a vote in the Council, which they would lose.

Diplomats expect the commission to decide by June. But it might wait for an EU court opinion on a Singapore treaty before it does.

The situation puts leading EU states, such as Germany, in a tricky position.

Most capitals want national ratification to give the Canada pact political legitimacy. But if that option is chosen, it creates the risk of the visa-linked veto.

Two diplomats said capitals also favour national ratification due to the upcoming EU-US free trade agreement, known by its acronym TTIP.

The US deal has drawn public anger due to allegations of lack of transparency and democratic oversight. If the Canada pact is waved through without involving parliaments, that anger might grow the diplomats said.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania have the same visa problem with the US.

Another EU diplomat said Bulgaria and Romania are keeping quiet on whether they would also veto the US trade pact due to US non-reciprocity on visas.

The diplomat said the two countries saw an opportunity on Canada due to the timing of the October summit and because the Canadian government has the power to decide on visas.

"The two [trade] deals are at very different stages, one [the US] is still in negotiations while on the other one we’re discussing ratification," the diplomat said.

"In the US the power [on visas] lies more with Congress than with the government."

Croatia, Cyprus and Poland have opted to wait and see how bilateral visa talks with the US pan out before taking a stand.

The Canada and US visa disputes were already in the air because Ottawa and Washington missed an EU legal deadline, in April, to fully reciprocate.

MEPs and member states had expected the commission to propose imposing visas on Americans and Canadians in return. But the commission instead asked them for an "opinion", due in July, on how to proceed.

The commission’s softly softly approach also "disappointed" Bulgaria and Romania.

"We expected the commission to implement the relevant provisions and regulations," the ambassadors’ letter said.

They said they understand the "possible impact of the visa issue on bilateral relations with Canada, both from the political and ecnomic points of view".

But they said EU states should "postpone" talks on the Canada pact until the issue is resolved.

The Canadian foreign minister, who is in Brussels for a Nato event next week, will discuss the problem with his Bulgarian counterpat in the margins of the meeting, diplomatic sources said.

EU chokes on US visa dispute

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 it haven’t gone down well.

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