- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

BRUSSELS | The European Union threatened Wednesday to hit American diplomats where it hurts - with new visa restrictions - if Washington does not stop dragging its feet on lifting visa requirements for 12 European Union nations.

The retaliatory measures against U.S. diplomatic passport holders would begin next year.

“No tangible progress has been made regarding the United States despite all efforts of the [European] Commission and individual member states,” the EU executive said in a statement Wednesday.

The majority of the European Union’s 27 countries are included in the U.S. visa-waiver program, but citizens of a dozen mostly Eastern European countries still need a visa to enter the United States.

Some of those nations have signed bilateral deals with Washington that should allow them visa-free travel in the near future, but the European Union is unhappy about the slow progress of the negotiations.

Old-member Greece and all countries that have joined the European Union since 2004, except Slovenia, are currently excluded from the visa-waiver program, meaning their citizens must apply for visas at U.S. embassies or consulates ahead of their trip - and can be turned down.

U.S. officials responded diplomatically to the EU threat.

“We knew that this was coming,” State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said in Washington. “The U.S. government is continuing to work on expanding the number of European countries that are included in the visa-waiver program.”

The U.S. visa-waiver program, created in 1988, was originally focused on preventing illegal immigration. But since Sept. 11, 2001, the focus has shifted to security, and the program has been altered several times in hope of strengthening America’s ability to prevent terrorism.

Visas are a sensitive issue in EU-U.S. relations, and the European Commission said it is also in dispute with Singapore and Japan.

Washington’s refusal to extend its visa waiver systematically to all EU newcomers causes resentment in countries that are among the most loyal U.S. allies - some with troops fighting under American command in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Bush administration’s decision earlier this year to sign separate visa deals with several ex-communist central European countries - instead of with the European Union as a whole - created tension within the bloc and across the Atlantic.

The United States has said it plans to allow some new EU states to join its visa-free program this year. The EU executive says its threat is meant to put pressure on the United States to carry out its plan.

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