Three more EU members to sign visa-free deals with US

March 11th, 2008 - 2:17 am ICT by admin  

Brussels, March 11 (DPA) In a major setback to common EU visa policy, Estonia and Latvia have said that they would sign bilateral deals with the US to pave way for visa-free travel there for their citizens, while Slovakia has said it was planning to do so. The three would join the Czech Republic, which has already signed such an agreement.

Estonia and Latvia plan to sign Wednesday a non-binding memorandum of understanding in their national capitals, Normans Penke, a high-ranking Latvian foreign ministry official said in Brussels Monday.

“It’s a bilateral issue, and it should be solved bilaterally,” Penke said at the end of the EU foreign ministers meeting.

Slovakia is also aiming for such a deal, which would eventually trade visa-free travel to the US for transmitting passenger information to US security services, Slovak Foreign Minister Jan Kubis told DPA.

“We don’t have a date but we would definitely like to continue with our bilateral negotiations… We might be following (the Czech Republic, Latvia and Estonia) very quickly with the conclusion of our negotiations and signing the memorandum,” he said.

Following a precedent set by the Czech Republic in late February, the three EU newcomers would make the first step to joining the US visa-waiver programme which requires a more intrusive sharing of passenger data than in the EU.

The three countries, however, insisted that the move would not contravene EU rules.

Slovakia’s draft text “takes as a source of inspiration the existing memorandum signed by the Czechs and the US, but also reflects different comments and opinions as expressed by the European Commission. So I believe our draft would be more in line with the position of the commission,” Kubis said.

“There will be nothing in the deal which would breach the EU’s competence,” Penke said.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, who chaired Monday’s meeting, reacted cautiously to the announcement, saying “our wish is that all citizens of the EU could travel anywhere without a visa, especially to the US”.

He said he hoped EU and US officials could reach agreement on the visa issue at a meeting in Slovenia Thursday.

“We are convinced that we will be able to reach an agreement and a compromise on this point,” Rupel said.

Exposing the deep rift within the EU, the Czech Republic angered Brussels two weeks ago when it signed a separate bilateral deal with the US under which it agreed to closer cooperation on air security in return for a visa waiver.

Brussels had been trying to convince Washington to extend its visa-waiver programme to include all 27 EU member states.

Most Europeans believe that being able to travel abroad without a visa shows they are not second rate citizens.

But many in the 12 countries that have joined the bloc since 2004 - most of which are former Communist states in eastern Europe - have grown increasingly frustrated with the slow progress achieved in this area by Brussels.

“For the moment, the Czech case is not dangerous, but it’s a yellow card - it has to be stopped before any more countries break ranks,” an EU political expert at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Piotr Kaczynski said hours before the Latvia’s decision was announced Monday.

Washington has been criticised for negotiating separate visa deals with EU member states, saying these would have more leverage if they negotiated together.

A deal with all 27 EU members would be better for the US than a deal with a single country, Kaczynski told DPA.

“The majority of Europeans taking off for the US leave not from Prague, but from London, Paris, Frankfurt,” he said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended Washington, saying the bilateral agreement arose from US legislation that dictates that the US can only conclude visa deals with individual countries.

Congress last year enacted the law designed to make it easier for eastern Europeans to travel to the US under pressure from countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. As members of NATO, they felt their citizens should be allowed to come to the US without a visa.

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