Sunday, August 5, 2007

EU demands equal U.S. visa treatment for all of the bloc's citizens

EU demands equal U.S. visa treatment for all of the bloc's citizens
By Dan Bilefsky Published: July 30, 2007

BRUSSELS: The European Union on Monday demanded that the United States offer equal treatment in the granting of visas to citizens of all 27 of the bloc's member countries. The call was an effort to resolve an issue that has cast a shadow over trans-Atlantic relations and angered new member states whose citizens face restrictions under the current U.S. visa-waiver program.

The bloc's justice commissioner, Franco Frattini, said in Budapest that he had spoken to U.S. officials to seek assurances that the waiver be applied to all EU citizens.

The waiver program now allows citizens from most West European countries to enter the United States without visas. It excludes several of the newer EU member states.

The two-tier system has prompted an outcry in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are closely allied with the United States and have sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. They have called on the EU to retaliate by imposing restrictions on U.S. diplomats entering Europe.

"We can no longer tolerate first- and second-class member states, that's definitely not acceptable," Frattini said at a news conference with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany of Hungary. He also met with Foreign Minister Kinga Goncz and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

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Frattini said that Washington was working on a bill that would equalize the visa requirements for all EU states. The legislation, contained in an omnibus homeland security bill, was approved by Congress on Friday and is now awaiting President George W. Bush's signature.

EU officials are concerned that a new U.S. electronic visa proposal could create new obstacles to last-minute travelers because additional rules under consideration would require new security checks to be carried out.

European travelers would be asked to give passport and other details to the U.S. authorities electronically - personally or through a travel agent - which could force Europeans to give two day's notice before flying to the United States, a time frame that could hamper business travel.

Under the proposal, a "green light" transmitted electronically would confirm that visa-free travel was allowed, while a yellow light would require the traveler to be interviewed at a U.S. consulate. That has created concerns in Europe that processing the information could delay travelers. Citizens of Britain, for instance, which has faced terrorist attacks, could be subjected to greater scrutiny.

U.S. officials said that the new travel bill had been passed, but that the regulations for its implementation still had to be drafted by the security authorities. "The Europeans have expressed their concerns and we are aware of them," said one official who requested anonymity.

In response to the Bush administration's proposals to introduce electronic visas for all European travelers, the EU is considering responding by introducing a similar system for American travelers coming to Europe.

Americans, who now can travel to any EU member state with a valid passport, would have to submit passport information and other personal data through the Internet to apply for electronic travel authorization.