July 21, 2006

EU stalls on US visas

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - New eastern members of the European
Union are angry that the European Commission has again stalled
retaliation against the United States for continuing to impose
visa requirements on their nationals, diplomats say.

The United States does not require visas for citizens of 15
of the 25 countries in the EU.

The Commission has warned Washington the EU could impose a
visa requirement on U.S. diplomats and government officials if
it does not extend its visa waiver scheme to Greece and nine
mostly ex-communist states that joined the EU in 2004.

The EU executive was due to present a report to justice and
interior ministers next Monday recommending such steps, but the
document has been delayed for two months, prompting threats of
unilateral action by the Czech Republic, normally one of
Washington's most faithful allies on foreign policy.

"We received the information from Canada and the United
States too late to present it at the Council next week,"
European Commission spokesman Pietro Petrucci confirmed.

He said the report would be issued in the second week of
September. The Commission said in January it wanted progress
before it reported in July and warned it had the power to
recommend sanctions.

The United States, which tightened immigration measures
after the September 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, cites security
concerns and worries about overstays for maintaining the
requirement, which it would require legislation to change.

"We have very close relations with the United States and we
cannot understand why we are subject to such discrimination," a
Czech diplomat said, noting Czechs could travel freely anywhere
in the world except for the United States and Canada.

He said Prague was disenchanted that the EU had not invoked
a clause under which all member states are bound to act in
support a member that is subject to discriminatory treatment.

"This has been going on for two years and the Union has
still not invoked the solidarity clause," the diplomat said.

"Either the EU helps us on this or we will get out of the
system and introduce visas unilaterally, which of course will
bring an (EU) infringement procedure against us."

U.S. officials say talks are continuing to overcome the
problem, a source of embarrassment with countries which are
generally supportive of Washington in EU and NATO councils, but
no time frame can be set for a resolution.

One noted the timing was awkward in the run-up to mid-term
congressional elections in November.