- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Latvia and Estonia signed bilateral deals with the United States that will eventually allow tourists from the Baltic States to visit America without a visa.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff signed the necessary documents Wednesday with the Latvian foreign minister in Riga and with the Estonian internal affairs minister in Tallin.

The European Union is negotiating with the United States to expand the so-called visa waiver program with all 27 EU member states.

Some EU nations have complained about the slow pace of EU negotiations and decided to negotiate directly with the United States.

The Czech Republic last month signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to speed their accession to the visa-waiver program. Latvia and Estonia followed.

The United States wants air marshals on flights and electronic travel authorization as part of a new visa-waiver law that could also require EU nations to provide more data on passengers on trans-Atlantic flights — demands that have irked EU officials.

A statement issued after talks yesterday between Mr. Chertoff, Vice President Franco Frattini of the European Commission for justice and other high-level officials said discussions will follow a twin-track approach, according to the Associated Press.

Washington will negotiate both with the bloc and with government officials in each nation, the AP reported.

Estonian Ambassador Vaino Reinart said the bilateral agreement is “nothing out of the ordinary, considering the complexity of EU’s legal system.”

Anthony Smallwood, spokesman for the Delegation of the European Commission to the U.S., said the goal is to extend the U.S. visa-waiver system to all EU member states.

“It is understood that there could be a twin-track approach on the matters like this; there are certain things that member states can initiate, and there are certain things that can only be done by the European Commission on behalf of the whole EU,” Mr. Smallwood said.

The memorandum signed by Mr. Chertoff in the respective Baltic capitals doesn’t mean visa-free flights will start immediately.

The document nominates Latvia and Estonia as prospective members of the visa-waiver program and that requires further cooperation and compliance with the set of standards for security policy, travel documents and information exchange.

“Our goal is to eliminate [visas] — this last artificial barrier for communication between our people by the end of this year,” said Latvian Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovics.

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