On March 3, the Parliament of the European Union passed a resolution urging the European Commission to revoke the visa-free privilege for U.S. citizens within two months unless the U.S. government agrees to grant visa-free travel to the citizens of EU member states Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania. While the resolution is not legally binding on the EU Commission, the Parliament – anticipating push-back by the Commission – has already intimated it is headed to the courts if no Commission action is forthcoming. This sensitive U.S.-EU issue has been on Newland Chase’s radar for some time, but this latest development has now ratcheted-up the potential for real action.
What’s Really Going On?
Citizens of the United States are understandably troubled, reading in the media over the last two weeks that they may soon lose visa-free travel to Europe. Likewise, U.S. companies with business in Europe are now mentally tallying the increased business costs of obtaining visas for their U.S. employees visiting their European locations and customers, and companies in the huge European tourism sector can only guess at the potential loss of customer revenue. It is estimated that U.S. citizens traveling to Europe topped a record-high 13 million plus travelers in 2016.
The threat of the U.S. losing visa-free travel to Europe is not new. The U.S. has been under formal notice from the EU to revise its policy since 2014. Similar actions were also lodged against the nations of Australia, Canada, Brunei, and Japan – who likewise required visas for citizens of the same five EU countries at issue. The four nations have since capitulated by revising their immigration policies to grant visa-free entry to the five nations. The situation appears to now have taken on a more serious tenor, with the U.S. continuing as the only remaining hold-out. As recent as April of last year, the U.S. State Department continued to make public statements that it had no plans to admit nationals of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania into the Visa Waiver Program, stating that those nations “fundamentally, just haven’t met the requirements for the visa waiver program.”
Now with a new administration in the U.S. and with a somewhat less-than unified post-Brexit EU, it is unclear whether the situation will ultimately result in visa-free travel to the U.S. for the five nations, or instead result in the imposition of an EU visa requirement for U.S. citizens. President Trump’s public comments before inauguration were less than flattering of the European Union, but since taking office, his administration has not hinted at a clear U.S. response.
When it comes right down to it, the heart of the issue will be to what extent the apparent rising nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic will trump (no pun intended) the obvious economic harm a tit-for-tat reciprocal imposition of visa requirements would inflict on mutual business and tourism interests. The executives in the EU Commission clearly do not want to take such action, and it remains to be seen to what extent individual EU nations would even follow such a Commission directive if issued.
Newland Chase views the best-case U.S. response to be to simply extend visa-free travel to the five nations, treating all EU member nations equally, as is now the prevailing international consensus. Short of that step, we hope that the U.S. will at least engage in constructive diplomatic dialogue on the issue to avoid or postpone any immediate negative EU action, giving the five nations time to meet the State Department’s requirements for the Visa Waiver Program. However, the current seemingly ad hoc approach to international relations of the current U.S. administration makes any prediction difficult.
Will All This Ultimately Affect You?
Hopefully, no. However, the current EU ultimatum for the U.S. to open its visa-free scheme to all EU nations or face imposition of a visa requirement on U.S. citizens traveling to the EU should be taken seriously. Unlike past similar actions, the present ultimatum has the potential for real consequences if the U.S. ignores it. Neither the EU nor the U.S. obviously wants a visa requirement imposed for U.S. citizens; it would be economically damaging to both sides. Unfortunately, however, the present debate will be resolved (or not resolved) in the realm of diplomatic gamesmanship, and it will depend on whether both sides can find a “face saving,” agreeable solution.
Whichever course the U.S. chooses to take as a response now, Newland Chase doesn’t see actual reciprocal action coming from the EU for at least four to six months. We are, however, taking the current situation seriously and will be monitoring developments for the potential impact on our clients.