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CZECH REPUBLIC: Washington’s Trojan Horse?

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Apr 14 2008 (IPS) - U.S. visa policies are causing a new rift in the EU, with Eastern European countries signing bilateral deals that Washington could use to stiffen visa requirements for all EU countries.

Unlike Western European EU members, people from the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which joined the EU in 2004, all require visas to the U.S.

The U.S. policy has caused resentment in the traditionally pro-U.S. region, but finally Washington has started to deliver on its promise to lift visas – only to anger Brussels, which wants a uniform visa policy for all EU members.

The first beneficiary of the visa waiver programme will be the Czech Republic, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Washington last month. The memorandum stipulates the introduction of a more costly and demanding Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) system, which for the EU borders violation of human rights due to the sensitive and private nature of information required from passengers bound to the U.S.

The system, whose details remain unknown, is to be introduced in September after which a short testing period will ensue.

Washington allegedly wants passports to contain biometric data, and demands the presence of armed secret agents on U.S.-bound planes to address terrorist threats.

Currently Brussels and Washington use the Passenger Name Record (PNR), which envisions the handover of EU passenger data and information on lost or stolen passports to U.S. authorities.

But the U.S. thinks the system is obsolete, and will gradually try to make European countries accept the new ETA system.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said the memorandum could be used as a model for other agreements between Washington and European countries. Czech officials have expressed similar views, proudly claiming Prague has established a useful precedent for other European countries still requiring U.S. visas.

Brussels has accused Prague and those countries following its steps of undermining European unity by not consulting it sufficiently, and of possibly worsening travel conditions for Europeans wishing to visit the U.S.

To Brussels’ dismay, the Czech example is being followed by other Central Eastern European states: Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have already signed similar bilateral agreements with the U.S.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is threatening the Czech Republic and other countries with a complaint before the European Court of Justice.

“It is power play between the EU and the U.S.; obviously Brussels is trying to establish itself as the body in charge of cooperation with the U.S,,” Martin Chren, director of the Bratislava-based Hayek Foundation told IPS.

Prague insists the measures are reciprocal, and says the memorandum of understanding excludes the possibility of providing U.S. authorities with information beyond the framework of the PNR.

But experts note the document’s wording is too vague and that the data to be provided, as well as the manner in which it will be handled, remain unclear.

Czech officials have rejected criticism, and say Brussels has failed to achieve the lifting of visas for Eastern European countries, forcing them to take the situation into their own hands.

The argument has strong echoes in the region: “It would be unfair if countries that don’t need a visa for the U.S. require countries who need them to wait for political discussions that are not leading to concrete results in the forthcoming period,” Chren told IPS.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek accused the EU of “putting spokes in our wheels for four years.

“We took charge of our own future, but we did not forget about the others,” Topolanek said in Washington after signing the deal which will abolish visas for Czechs by autumn 2008.

Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer was considerably less diplomatic when justifying the Czech position to journalists: “I am a free man, and not a slave of the European Commission.”

Langer and Topolanek belong to the ruling ODS (Civic Democrats), a right-wing party of euro-sceptic orientation which openly admires the British approach to EU integration.

European Commissioner Franco Frattini, in charge of visa issues, reminded Czechs that the EU had indeed shown results in visa policies, pointing to the recent lifting of Canadian visas. He pointed out that talks with the U.S. had to restart from scratch last August, when Washington passed a new visa law.

Poland has been the unusual exception: traditionally the staunchest regional ally of the U.S., its recently appointed Prime Minister Donald Tusk dismisses the visa controversy as Washington’s own problem.

“The USA commits a serious mistake by maintaining its visa regime which has virtually no justification with respect to Poles,” he told journalists last month, adding he was confident that the “resolute attitude on the part of the EU and its Commission” would bring results.

Poland is also the country in the region less likely to obtain the lifting of U.S. visas due to high though decreasing refusal rates at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. The actual lifting of visas will depend on the visa application refusal rates at the U.S. embassies in the various countries.

But now, with an increasingly weak dollar, the U.S. is no longer an attractive destination for Eastern Europeans wishing to work abroad. Working in Europe is a more legal and financially rewarding experience for eastern Europeans.

Visa-free travel applies to visitors staying for no longer than three months, after which anyone wishing to study or work in the U.S. has to obtain a visa.

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