EU member states break ranks over common visa policy
Governments ready to follow the Czechs in defying the EU.
Brussels -- In a move set to doom European Union efforts for a common visa policy, several member states said Thursday they were ready to break ranks and sign bilateral deals with the United States.
Interior ministers from Latvia and Slovakia indicated at a meeting in Brussels that their governments were ready to follow the example set by the Czech Republic and conclude separate agreements with Washington in the spring.
Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer, who signed a visa pact with US officials in Washington on Tuesday, said Greece, Malta, Hungary and all three Baltic states had also expressed strong interest in his government's initiative.
The Czech decision has exposed a deep rift within the EU and has deeply upset officials in Brussels, who had been trying to convince Washington to extend its visa-waiver program to include all 27 EU member states.
Most Europeans believe that being able to travel abroad without a visa shows they are not second rate citizens.
But many in the 12 countries that have joined the bloc since 2004 -- most of which are former Communist states in Eastern Europe -- have grown increasingly frustrated with the slow progress achieved in this area by Brussels.
As Langer put it on Thursday: "I started our discussions with my colleagues over lunch with a Czech saying: A man who is not hungry does not believe hungry ones. (Today) I asked my colleagues to be a little bit hungry."
The memorandum of understanding signed by the Czech Republic in Washington, if implemented, could allow Czech citizens to travel to the US without a visa as soon as September. As part of the deal, Prague has agreed to strengthen cooperation on air security and provide Washington with passengers' data.
Officials in Brussels say the deal contravenes EU rules and jeopardises their efforts to forge a common approach on the issue.
Commissioner Franco Frattini, the EU official who has been trying to pursue a common visa-waiver policy, warned Thursday that he was considering taking legal action against the Czech Republic.
But he was also forced to concede that progress had not been fast enough.
"There was unanimous consensus about (the need to) speed up negotiations with the US on the basis of a common approach ... while reaffirming that we cannot tolerate any violations (to EU rules)," Frattini said.
The justice, freedom and security commissioner called on the US to stop trying to reach bilateral deals with individual EU countries and asked member states not to rush into new agreements with Washington ahead of an EU-US justice and home affairs meeting scheduled for March 12-13 in Slovenia.
The US has been trying to lure individual European governments into strengthening security cooperation by offering visa-free travel to their citizens.
Germany's Wolfgang Schaeuble, who also attended Tuesday's meeting of EU interior ministers, said he was sympathetic with the Czech initiative.
"The pressure is not from the United States of America but from the people in the new member states," Schaeuble said.
At the request of Washington, several EU countries, including Germany and the Czech Republic, have agreed to put armed air marshals on flights heading to the United States.
Brussels says that while member states are mainly responsible for their security, visa policies lies within the EU remit.
Speaking in Brussels, Langer insisted that the memorandum of understanding did not violate EU rules and also ruled out any links between Tuesday's accord and controversial US plans to build a missile defense shield base in the Czech Republic.
And the minister said other countries were ready to follow his country's lead.
"I am definitely sure that what we did is not a fight for ourselves but (also) for our partners and friends in the EU. I believe they will understand and support not only the Czech but also other countries that are not in the visa-waiver program," he added.
DPA with Expatica