Visa waivers: a damaging U.S.-EU imbroglio.

AuthorDale, Helle
PositionEU-U.S. Relations

Currently, 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...

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