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Visa Waivers: A Damaging U.S.-EU Imbroglio     Print Email
Helle Dale

Helle DaleCurrently, the U.S. visa process is the most contentious and damaging issue between the United States and some of its staunchest allies in Europe. The problem is that some new EU member-states are not recognized by Washington as qualifying for their citizens to enter the U.S. under what are called “visa waiver” permissions. As a result, all these would be visitors have to obtain visas from U.S. consulates in their countries—a procedure that often turns out to be slow, expensive, frustrating—and can wind up in a bureaucratic dead end.

It is not a small problem—neither for the affected nations nor, if one thinks about it, for Washington. What is normally perceived as just a procedural problem has, in fact, got wrapped around some very big axles as anti-terrorism concerns mounted sharply in the U.S. in the same year as the most recent EU enlargement took in a large batch of new member-states. Of the 12 countries that feel particularly discriminated against, 11 are from the EU: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Greece, and Malta. The remaining frustrated ally is South Korea.


In the longer run, failure to find a way to smooth this obstacle would amount to a crushing blow for the affected EU countries. But the route to change is a long and arduous road and, at this point, success is by no means guaranteed.

In Washington, embassies of the affected nations, backed by the European Commission, have waged a determined campaign lobbying for changes in the process. Congress—which has ultimate responsibility for U.S. regulations in this matter—has tried several times to find consensus on revising the relevant pieces of legislation, without success. Meanwhile the problem is fueling anti-U.S. antagonisms and a perception of capricious discrimination by U.S. bureaucrats —and damping the visits to the U.S. of people from countries with whom Washington would like to improve commercial and intellectual ties. Meanwhile horror stories abound from friends and diplomats from Central and Eastern Europe about the problems besetting foreigners seeking to visit the United States. In fact bringing up the subject of visas with any resident of those countries is like waving a red flag before a bull. Doing an informal survey around me, I asked a Polish friend—who is working as an au pair in Washington—how hard it was for her to get a visa to the United States. “Not hard at all,” she replied, “except that I had to travel all night from my hometown, Marburg, to Warsaw for an 8 am meeting at the U.S. embassy, which in the end lasted less than 2 minutes. I was so mad.”

Registered with a State Department approved au pair program, she was among the lucky ones to pass briskly through the U.S. consular process. Others —many others—do not fare so well. For example, if this young woman’s Polish family wants to visit her in Washington as tourists, U.S. consular officers at the Warsaw Embassy might take dimmer view of their visa applications and turn them down—without any refund of the $100 application fee. Twenty-seven percent of all Poles’ visa applications are rejected.

In contrast, if the Washington family had sought a German or French au-pair, these questions and difficulties would never have arisen. Germany, France, Britain and 25 other countries, including Japan, are part of the U.S. “visa waiver” program set up in 1986 to make travel easier to the United States.

Under the program, citizens of most countries in Western Europe can travel for up to 90 days as tourists to the United States without needing to worry about a visa. Today, two-thirds of all visitors to the United States come from visa waiver countries. Beyond Western Europe, this program also includes other Asian countries such as: Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei.

The criteria for countries to join the visa waiver program is their track record —specifically, that no more than three percent of applicants from that country are turned down by U.S. consular officials and fewer than two percent of visitors from that country overstay their visa time in the United States. Each qualifying country must reciprocate by offering visa-free travel for American citizens.

Since September 11, 2001, for security reasons, no new countries have been admitted to the program. So, in practice, the consequences of the system amount to a prolongation of the post-World War II division of Europe embodied in the wartime “Yalta agreement.” In other words, new members of the EU and NATO—ex-members of the Soviet bloc —find themselves again behind the Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill famously described as a barrier running from “Stettin [a Polish seaport] in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.” U.S. policy has always been aimed at tearing down this wall, so it is ironic that Washington is now preserving a form of this past division by extending favorable treatment to the wealthier nations of Western Europe and denying it to the poorer cousins of the East. Despite the National Security Strategy in which the United States proclaimed its intention to seek “a Europe whole and free,” this very down-to-earth disparity exists and is being perpetuated by U.S. practices regarding visas.

Very few Americans appreciate just how much the perceived inequity of the U.S. visa regime rankles among some of the people they considered their friends abroad. In fact, Americans might be perturbed if they knew, and Congress and the Bush administration might have done something about the problem sooner. Opinions of the United States are dropping even among these otherwise staunch allies. In the most recent German Marshall Fund poll of Transatlantic trends, only one country in the region, Romania, viewed U.S. global leadership more positively than negatively.

In more concrete and damaging terms, a global survey of businessmen early this year found that, by a large majority, they rated the United States as the country they least liked to visit—mainly because of hassles and perceived rudeness by officials at entry points for foreigners to the U.S.

A solution of the issue of visa waivers could have a huge positive impact for American public diplomacy. The issue is followed with excruciatingly intense interest by the media of the excluded countries as a barometer of their relationship with the United States. Every statement by a U.S. official on the subject causes immediate reaction—in practice, usually one of disappointment.

As much as the expense and inconvenience of applying for a visa, it is the feeling of being treated like second class citizens that has a lot of Central and East Europeans up in arms. South Koreans feel similarly snubbed at not being allowed to qualify for visa waivers. Compounding this resentment is the fact that the United States has drawn on military contributions from Poles, Czechs, Balts and others for the combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as more broadly in cooperation in the global war on terror. To people in these allied nations, it seems insulting and contradictory that they are good enough to serve alongside American soldiers and officials in dangerous international missions but not trusted to set foot easily in the United States.

All these points have been forcefully made to President Bush by visiting Polish leaders and others. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel urged Mr. Bush in a letter in May 2006, to “remove what Czechs feel is an unfortunate relic of the Cold War that no longer belongs in the modern Czech-U.S. alliance. It also allows you to demonstrate to an emancipated and self-confident ally the renowned U.S. spirit of equality and fair play.”

In Tallinn, Estonia, on his way to the NATO summit in Riga last November, President George W. Bush finally made a commitment to work for change in the visa waiver regime. In consequence, the administration has produced a road-map for 13 countries seeking entry into the program, focusing on steps to bring down their rate of visa refusals and of overstays by citizens. The road-map, however, is open-ended in terms of its calendar and includes no estimated time of arrival.

The problem, though, is less the White House than Congress. The presidential policy arm, the National Security Council, deals on a daily basis with questions of maintaining allied solidarity and crafting fruitful global strategy. But in Congress—which has ultimate authority over regulations—the question of visa waivers easily gets caught up in the debates over immigration and terrorism. Whenever either of those issues hit the front pages, trouble looms.

Last November, draft legislation for a new “Secure Travel and Counter-terrorism Partnership Act” was introduced by Senator George Voinovich. A Republican from Ohio, he is of Serbian origin and is therefore keenly aware of the situation and of European sensitivities. His bill sought to re-frame the debate in terms of security and security threats instead of visa overstays, but it died in the post-electoral “lame-duck session” of Congress. He reintroduced the proposal in the first weeks of the Democratic-controlled Congress, and this time he was joined by co-sponsors Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana and Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, as well as Democrats Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. In the House, a similar bill was introduced by Republican Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania.

As the name of the bill suggests, it represents a shift from simply looking at rates of application rejections and overstays, which some European governments are having trouble managing, and instead focusing on overall improvements in their partnerships with the United States on issues relating to Homeland Security. (The bill, with this new thrust, is actively supported by the leadership in the Homeland Security Department.) It stipulates that within a five-year probationary period, all applicants would need to demonstrate enhanced travel security requirements, accept new agreements on counter-terrorism cooperation and information sharing and be close allies of the United States in the global war on terrorism.

The legislation’s proponents say it is designed to improve cooperation with important U.S. allies in the war against terrorism and thus strengthen U.S. national security interests while promoting American economic competitiveness. “This legislation will improve both our national security and economic interests while helping to solidify and improve good will toward the United States for years to come,” Sen. Voinovich stated on February 15, when the bill was added as an amendment to the Homeland Security management act of 2007 (S.4). “I will work closely with the administration and my colleagues in the Senate as we move forward to show our allies that we appreciate their help in this historic fight.”

One potential sticking point in the legislation was that the Voinovich bill initially proposed a pilot program of five countries (out of the 12 EU countries facing visa restrictions). The smaller number was the most the bill’s sponsors considered politically feasible in the current Congressional climate about immigration issues. In January just before he reintroduced his legislation, Senator Voinovich met with ambassadors of the affected countries in a session that brought out the depth and emotional rawness of the issue. The meeting’s agenda (at the Heritage Foundation in Washington) was swept aside by concern over the prospect that five EU nations might achieve early qualification and seven would be put off, perhaps indefinitely. This prospect threatened to create divisions among a group of countries that had been working together successfully on this issue. In the final version of the legislation, the question of numbers was omitted and the focus was simply kept on standards.

Clearly, progress has been made in the past year, but Congressional opposition is likely to remain stiff because of perceived concerns about the issue’s possible implications for immigration and terrorism—two overriding issues in Washington, politically and emotionally. Many factions in Congress envision an influx of Central and East Europeans with dubious passports coming to the United States for jobs and medical care. A staffer for a U.S. Senator deeply antagonistic to Voinovich’s proposal put it flatly: “This could double the population of Chicago.”

Among American conservatives, opposition is also fueled by the idea that the existing program imperils national security, and an expansion, pushed by the travel and tourism industry, would make it even more dangerous. Attacking Mr. Bush’s support for expanding the program, columnist Michael Cutler wrote in the Saint Petersburg Times, “In effect, their greed is jeopardizing our nation’s security and the safety of our citizens. The outrage is that their wishes appear to be this administration’s commands.”

Liberals have their own set of reasons for opposing expanding the program. Senator Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California, for instance, believes the visa waiver program should be eliminated altogether as part of a major overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. Indeed, Ms. Feinstein may have produced the biggest obstacle to forward movement in the near future by introducing an amendment to the bill that overwhelmingly passed the Judiciary Committee review of the bill. It prescribes that no country can remain qualified for waivers if it has a visa-overstay rate exceeding 10 percent in any year and, to enforce that, demands that 97 percent of international airports in the U.S. have exit-visa tracking systems for air travelers. Until that system is in place, her amendment says, no new countries can be added to the waiver system. Currently, no such system is in place in any airport in the United States. Under her terms, any prospect of a solution would seem bound to recede.

Efforts to rescue the visa waiver amendment will continue, even under difficult circumstances. Congressman Wexler has proposed Congressional hearings, and major Democratic players in the House with large immigrant communities in their constituencies have become interested, such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.

The issue is even more complex to handle than it might seem because the European Union takes the position that the question of visa waivers should not be handled as a bilateral issue between the United States and individual EU countries but instead be negotiated by Brussels (in practice the European Commission) on behalf of the new member-states of the union. As explained by Ambassador John Bruton, the EU’s representative in Washington, the European nations applying for visa-waiver status are now EU members, they should not be accorded inferior or different treatment. (In this context, it seems relevant to note that inequalities on travel freedoms continue to exist among EU countries themselves: At the moment only Great Britain and Ireland allow citizens from the new member states to settle and work freely.)

As a consequence of this continuing imbroglio, U.S. relations with some key European allies may continue sustaining damage. The Bush administration acknowledges the need for strategic partners in the U.S. war on terror and as part of U.S. strategic interests. But willing partners may become fewer and farther between in Central and Eastern Europe if the public there continues to feel snubbed and unappreciated. The next time the United States needs international partners in what the Pentagon calls “the long war,” they may well be harder to come by.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.