Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Will EU demand North Americans get visas?

Tourists at Notre Dame (image by Gideon, Creative Commons)
Is there a real threat that the EU might demand US and Canadian citizens apply for visas before entering the Schengen area - or is it just sabre rattling? An absurd impasse has arisen because of unwillingness in Washington and Ottawa to extend visa waiver states to travellers from some European countries on the one hand and the EU's principle that all its citizens must be treated link on the other. The Commission first acted to counter the failure of of some countries to offer visa free travel to citizens of all all EU member states 24 months ago. The non-reciprocity problem with Australia and Japan was resolved. But The US still requires visas for citizens of Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Cyprus and Croatia, and Canada still requires them for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania. If such problems have still not been cleared up 24 months after the relevant governments have been notified the Commission must propose suspension of visa free admission for their citizens, too. Discounting some obscure legal loophole, it appear to have no option. But tourism from North America - and especially that from the US - is immensely valuable to the European economy. It helps support millions of jobs. It's reckoned to be worth some €57 billion a year. And while the threat of suspension does not apply directly to the UK and Ireland - they have an opt out from visa decisions - it would clearly affect both if carried out. Many North Americans spend time there as well as visiting France and Italy, for example. Tourism from the US and Canada contributes around £3.4bn to the UK economy alone. Mario Bodini, chair of the European Tour Operators Association, said it was difficult to estimate the impact of a suspension but " we would expect leisure travel which, including visiting friends and relatives, makes up over 80% of the total, to suffer a fall in magnitude of roughly 30%. Mercifully both the Council and European Parliament has to take into consideration the economic impact and the practicalities of any mov. Even if the numbers were to drop, it would leave the main Schengen entry countries with a 10 million visa processing task. That alone should sink this idea. What should now happen? According to reports, Washington officials insist countries such as Romania haven't met the necessary requirements to join the visa waiver programme. Just what this means is not clear. Why can't citizens of those countries be obliged to apply for ESTA (electronic system for travel authorisation) in the same way that other EU citizens are? That system doesn't guarantee acceptance - or even admission to the US once accepted. Applicants can surely be vetted to ensure they don't pose security risks in the same way they are checked when applying for visas. Does the problem lie in the failure of the some of the relevant member states to issue electronic passports or to comply with international agreed specifications for them? I don't have the answer to that question. It seems on face value that the first move to end the stands off is down the Americans. But if there is a genuine reason why reciprocity can't be extended, European governments must take a pragmatic approach. While I noted flippantly in an earlier article that the silver lining would be a huge crop of cut price European holidays, the reality could be financial difficulties for many operators dependent on tourism and, in the longer term, that would be bad for the whole continent of Europe.

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