April 2016

In July 2007 the U.S. changed its visa-waiver program to enhance security and provide an opportunity for all EU member countries to enter the U.S. visa free. Prior to these changes the visa waiver program criteria relied on an evaluation of visa rejection and over stay rates.  When the law was changed the new criteria relied instead on shared security measures.

Unfortunately, the Senate imposed a sunset clause that provided insufficient time for all EU countries to achieve the new security criteria.

At the time of the sunset, EU citizens from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland remained outside the visa waiver program. Today there are more EU citizens who cannot travel visa free to the US including Croatia and Cyprus.  Because not all EU citizens are treated the same under the U.S. visa regime, the European Union passed law No. 1289 obliging the European Commission to implement a 12-month suspension of visa-free travel for citizens of a country that does not have VWPs with all Member Countries in the EU.  According to this statute, the Commission and Parliament have 24 months to analyze best approaches towards solving the issue, as well as the possible "adverse consequences" that the decision would have on the relationships with the third country.  In April 2014, the European Union initiated the two-year examination process when it published a report in its Official Journal, announcing that Japan, Brunei, Australia, and the US do not offer visa waivers with certain Member nations. 

Although, Japan and Australia have restored their visa waiver programs with all EU countries, the United States and Canada have remained intransigent in their visa policies.  The United States declared that Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania do not meet security standards defined by US law.  Although Canada recently affirmed its commitment to extending Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals who have traveled to the country in the previous ten years these reforms have been implemented.

The U.S. visa policy is predicated on the US Immigration and Nationality Act forbidding the implementation of visa waiver programs for nations with a higher than three percent rejection rate.  After the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, Congress tightened this policy to deny Electronic System for Traveling Authorizations or (ESTAs) to nationals that hold a dual citizenship from Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Sudan.  The law also bans granting ESTAs to any person that has traveled to Libya, Somalia, or Yemen after March 1, 2014.   The EU suggested and the U.S. has agreed to two modifications: the new ESTA form includes a section that allows applicants to provide information on why they should be eligible for visa-free travel and the restrictions for those who have traveled to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan are less restrictive for “bona fide” EU travelers.

This month the European Commission and the European Parliament considered suspending visa-free travel for citizens of the United States and Canada because both countries continue to refuse visa waivers for all citizens of EU countries.  The situation appears to be deadlocked since recent terror attacks in France and Belgium make it unlikely that the U.S. will expand the visa-waiver program to include all EU citizens. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that were the EU to adhere to is laws, it would have severe ramifications for US travelers. At a minimum tourist and business travelers to the EU would experience a more costly and more complicated entry process.

Moreover, the costs to the EU for terminating its visa waiver program with the United States and Canada would be high. A report published on April 12th, states that the infrastructure needed to process additional visas would cost the EU roughly Є 25 million. Currently, the EU maintains 45 consulates that support 30,000 visa applicants every year.  If the EU were to impose visas European countries would have to expand their embassy numbers and staff to process an estimated 10 million US and 2 million Canadian applications per year. 

Furthermore, a European decision to abolish visa waivers with the United States and Canada would have a negative economic impact on Europe since U.S. and Canadian travelers represent the largest number of international travelers to the EU. A recent European Union study estimated that this impact would result in a Є 1.8 billion reduction in the EU economy, and a five percent decrease in the number of tourists. 

Given the negative economic and travel implications it is essential that a common approach that promotes global security and allows reciprocity all EU citizens to travel to the U.S. and Canada be developed. Moreover, since evaluating overstay and rejection rates has not been found to promote greater security, we would urge that the U.S. Congress eliminate visa rejection and overstay rates as essential criteria and reinstitute meaningful security criteria to achieve its ends. 

While this is not an easy process, since only the U.S. Congress can amend the law to allow all EU citizens to travel visa free to the U.S., we urge the US Congress to do so. Our important transatlantic relationship depends on fair and equal treatment for all EU citizens.