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Sabre-rattling Europe threatens US diplomats with visas

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The European Commission has threatened action against US diplomats and service personnel if there's no movement from the United States on visa-free travel this year. Citizens of 12 EU member states currently require visas when travelling to the US, and according to the Commission no tangible progress has been made in talks to change this, "despite all efforts of the Commission and individual member states."

Which is a puzzle - because two sentences later the Commission tells us that the USA "committed at the June 2008 EU-USA Summit to include additional EU member states into its Visa Waiver Program (VWP) this year."

So, ah, the Commission thinks the US was lying, that it isn't going to do that anyway, so there's been "no tangible progress"? Up to a point. Certainly, it says that if there isn't any, it "will propose retaliatory measures - e.g. temporary restoration of the visa requirement for USA nationals holding diplomatic and service/official passports - as from 1 January 2009."

The situation is however more complex than the Commission's brief statement implies. The US is currently planning the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA, nee ETA) as an enhancement/abolition (depends on how you look at it) of the current Visa Waiver Program (VWP). ESTA is effectively a 'clear to fly' system that will require travellers to submit personal details prior to boarding the plane. The EU, meanwhile, has plans to introduce a similar system of its own, so at some point in the future the two should be happily swapping personal data with each other.

But prior to ESTA the US isn't massively keen on just ticking boxes to let the EU states that don't qualify for the VWP in. But it is keen on striking individual deals with these states to sign up for ESTA. Such deals have been signed with the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary so far, but Brussels objects to them, first because the US should negotiate with the EU as a whole on the issue, and second because the deals may undermine EU privacy rules, which is their job.

ESTA itself is due to go live in January 2009, at which point it will apply to all EU member states (indeed, to all states), so in some senses the EU countries signing bilateral deals could be said to be simply signing up for it ahead of the rest of the EU - not, of course, that there seems to be any kind of choice anyway.

Which would mean, then, that by 1 January 2009 all EU citizens would qualify for the VWP, or for what the VWP did next, ESTA, right? So there'll be nothing for the Commission to retaliate about, right? In which case, given that they know this, why are they threatening to retaliate?

They speak in riddles. As we said earlier, ESTA can be viewed either as an enhancement to the VWP or as its abolition. If it's an enhancement, then the Commission is going to want to agree the conditions and to ensure (just like it always does, right...) that the data requirements conform to EU data protection and privacy law. And it's going to want some kind of reciprocal arrangement but there is no way the EU version of ESTA is going to be in place next year.

And if ESTA is an abolition of the VWP, it's effectively a return to visas for Europeans travelling to the US, right? In which case, as the EU will not be in a position to abolish visa-free travel for Americans travelling to Europe in the same way as the Americans are doing in the other direction (because the EU system won't be in place), the appropriate reciprocal arrangement would have to be the reimposition of visas for US citizens travelling to Europe. So threatening the diplomats first is symbolic. Isn't it incredible how the US and EU keep saying how much they get along? ®

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