EU lawmakers vote to reintroduce visas for Americans over “reciprocity principle”

Mike Pence in Brussels 2017

Visit of Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, to the EC. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, and Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC, meet Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States. Date: 20/02/2017 Reference: P-033700/00-43 Location: Brussels – EC/Berlaymont. © European Union , 2017 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Mauro Bottaro.

The European Parliament passed a motion last Thursday calling on the European Parliament to temporarily reintroduce visa requirements for US citizens. The non-binding resolution called on the European Commission to end visa-free travel in response to Washington’s refusal to grant visa-free access to people from five east European countries.

Despite being only a temporary solution, the proposal could involve a serious damage to Europe’s tourism sector this summer, and represents by all means a step up in pressure in a long standing “visa war”.

Background

The matter concerns the so-called “visa reciprocity mechanism”, where if a given country does not lift its visa requirements within 24 months of being notified of non-reciprocity, the EU Commission must adopt a delegated act suspending the visa waiver for its nationals, as explained in a statement by the European Parliament.

The act can be objected by both the Parliament and the Council and the suspension usually lasts for 12 months. In April 2014, the European Commission was notified that five countries were not meeting their obligations towards the EU with regard to reciprocity of visa-free travel: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan and the US.

Australia, Brunei and Japan have lifted their visa requirements for all EU citizens and Canada has announced will do so on December 1 this year. Citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania still cannot enter US territory without a visa, while US citizens can travel to all EU countries visa-free. Indeed Washington still refuses to give visa-free access to people from those former communist countries, as US Department of Homeland Security still claims those five EU nations still do not meet security requirements set out under US law on visa refusals. Citizens from all other 23 EU member states can enter using the US visa waiver program.

Clear message

The EU is now pressing for equal treatment and reciprocity for all citizens from the bloc, and European lawmakers officially urged the EU Commission to adopt the necessary legal measures “within two months” to limit American visa-free travel to Europe.

“The EU Commission is legally obliged to take measures temporarily reintroducing visa requirements for US citizens, given that Washington still does not grant visa-free access to nationals of five EU countries”, said the EU’s official in the official statement. “In a resolution approved on Thursday, MEPs urge the Commission to adopt the necessary legal measures ‘within two months’”, the statement also said.

Warning from the tourism industry

Last Thursday’s motion is widely seen as a major threat to the EU’s tourism industry. In a few words, given the extra cost and time that an application would require, many believe that visa requirements would ultimately turn-off to potential visitors, causing huge losses in income. Indeed, prior to Thursday’s vote, the European Travel Commission (ETC) warned of the negative impact a dispute over visa requirements with the US might have on the continent’s tourism industry.

Eduardo Santander, executive director of the ETC, was more than clear. “We fully understand and respect the visa waiver reciprocity mechanism embedded in European legislation to ensure that all nationals of Member States part of Schengen can benefit on equal terms from exemption of visa requirement”, Mr. Santander said in a letter to MEPs. “However, we are very concerned about the economic and political impact of a suspension of visa waiver for US nationals”, he added.

“Making it more difficult for US citizens to travel to Europe would certainly deprive the European travel and tourism sector of essential revenue, and put thousands of European jobs at stake in one of the few sectors which experienced a strong growth in employment”, he also declared.

Big numbers

The European Tourism Association was also very clear and immediately published a sort of report to warn the European Commission of a possible catastrophic impact of visa reintroduction for Americans. According to ETOA, US and Canadian visitors are worth approximately €50 billion ($53 billion) in tourist revenues, as part of a service industry “on the same level as the automotive sector”, with million jobs dependent on it.

“Whilst we have every sympathy with the Commission, they are victims of their own process. It is important that the European economy does not become a victim too”, said ETOA in an official press release last week.

Mario Bodini, Chairman of ETOA, said “There should be reciprocity, but is not a €15 billion and 600,000 jobs problem. And reciprocity is a principle widely ignored in visa circles: Europeans enjoy far more freedom to travel around the world than the world enjoys coming to Europe”.

According to the US International Trade Administration, over 12 million Americans visited Europe in 2016, with France, Italy, Spain and Germany being the leading countries in terms of presences.

Diplomatic resolutions

According to Reuters, the European Commission stressed it is still pursuing “a diplomatic resolution” to the row, and that a May deadline to impose visas is still “unlikely”, also due the enormous impact the move would have on Europe’s tourism sector. Commission officials have reportedly scheduled a planned EU-US ministerial meeting on June 15 to try and resolve the issue.

“We will report on further progress made before the end of June and continue to work closely with both the European Parliament and the Council”, a Commission spokeswoman said last week.

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