- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

EU leaders have raised the prospect of visa restrictions on U.S. government officials in retaliation for Washington’s failure to make progress on visa-free travel for new EU members.

“In the present circumstances, it is fair to say that the [EU] Commission will be under increasing pressure to announce the prospect of reciprocal measures … possibly in respect of diplomatic and service passport holders,” wrote Commissioners Franco Frattini and Benita Ferrero-Waldner in a June 12 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Such passports typically are carried by U.S. administration officials and members of Congress and their staff when traveling on official business.

The letter is the latest development in a slowly escalating dispute over the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, under which citizens of 27 countries are allowed to visit the United States for up to three months without pre-applying for a visa.

The program is generally reciprocal — U.S. citizens can travel visa-free to the countries covered. But though U.S. nationals can visit any of the 25 member states of the EU without a visa, only 15 of these countries receive reciprocal privileges for the United States.

Among those excluded are most of the Central and East European countries that joined recently, including some of the closest U.S. allies in the European Union, such as Poland.

Some U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, would like to move in the opposite direction, fearing that visa waivers for the 27 countries make it too easy for terrorists get into the United States.

President Bush confirmed that the issue was discussed during his talks at the U.S.-EU summit in Vienna, Austria, yesterday.

Frustrated at the lack of movement on the issue, European leaders last year initiated a process under which progress toward reciprocity would be reported every six months by the European Commission — the European Union’s executive body.

The commission complained of a lack of progress in its first report in January and is expected to make recommendations to the Council of Ministers when it reports again in July. It is at that point that a decision would be made on sanctions against official visitors.

Currently, according to the EU mission in Washington, U.S. diplomats or government officials traveling on business to most EU countries do not require a visa. That could change if the United States cannot find a way to defuse the frustration among EU member states.

“We really need to feel a sense of progress on this issue. Clearly that hasn’t happened yet,” one EU official said.

The official said any restrictions would be tightly focused, covering only diplomatic and service passports, which would affect administration officials and members of Congress and their staff seeking to visit Europe on official business.

The United States, for its part, says it is working bilaterally with the 10 EU member states not covered by the program, and has developed road maps to help them meet the criteria for entry.

“We are aware of the importance of the program to our allies in Central Europe,” said State Department spokeswoman Angela Aggeler. “We are aware of the EU leadership’s views … and we will continue to work with our allies on this important issue.”

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