EU threatens visa curbs for Americans

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The Independent Online

A transatlantic war over visas threatens to derail a summit attended by President George Bush tomorrow, after the EU threatened to impose new restrictions on US diplomats and soldiers.

The escalating dispute arises from visa requirements imposed by the US on travellers from countries that recently joined the EU.

Though travellers from almost all the "old" EU member states are allowed into the US on a visa waiver, those from almost all of the new, mainly ex-Communist nations need a full visa.

The issue is on the agenda for the annual EU-US summit in Vienna. Along with other issues such as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the spat could sour a summit designed to debate issues such as Iran and the global challenge on energy.

The EU's threat of retaliation was made explicitly by the European Commission in a letter to Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

It said: "The [European] Commission will be under increasing pressure to announce the prospect of reciprocal measures as enshrined in our visa law, possibly in respect of diplomatic and service passport holders."

The letter, signed by Franco Frattini, EU justice and home affairs commissioner, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU foreign affairs commissioner, says the issue "will not disappear from the political agenda".

It adds: "It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to explain to citizens of 10 member states that they will require short-stay visas while US citizens can travel without a visa obligation to all 25 EU member states."

The two sides seem destined to clash because the US has little room for manoeuvre. Pressure has been mounting in the US Congress to toughen visa requirements on foreigners rather than relax them.

Technically, the EU could apply counter-sanctions - including slapping a full visa requirement on all US citizens travelling to the EU. But officials concede that this would be an over-reaction.

Imposing visas on diplomats and service personnel would need approval of a bloc of EU governments by majority vote. However, it would only be applied by countries inside (or associated with) the Schengen free-travel zone.

That means the UK and Ireland would not introduce the sanctions against the US. At present citizens of all the "old" EU member states except Greece can take part in the visa waiver. None of the countries that joined in 2004 can do so except Slovenia.

At tomorrow's summit the two sides will announce initiatives to combat counterfeiting, and the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, will seek to revive the stalled global trade talks.

Though there will be no progress over Kyoto, the US will agree to a dialogue on climate change and clean energy. The US and EU will also call on Russia to allow foreign firms to use its pipelines.

Wolfgang Schüssel, the Chancellor of Austria, which holds the EU presidency, will also raise the issue of Guantanamo Bay.

The EU side is likely to be more circumspect over the issue of CIA rendition flights because European governments have been accused of collusion.