The European Commission's proposal last week to suspend visa waiver privileges for U.S. travelers due to a visa reciprocity issue put the European travel industry further on edge, given the potential impact such a policy could have at a time when the Continent's tourism industry has already been weakened by recent terror attacks.
Responding to the proposal, Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, issued a statement saying, in part, "When European tourism is already suffering the consequences of the tragic events in France and Belgium, we saw travelers from North America resilient in their plans to come to Europe. It would be extremely inconsiderate to close our doors to them and renounce billions of [euros worth of] export revenue."
But according to the European Commission, requiring U.S. travelers to obtain visas when entering the European Union (EU) is a simple matter of reciprocity. The issue goes back two years, to April 2014, when the European Commission was alerted to visa nonreciprocity issues with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan and the U.S.
The non-reciprocity issues with Australia and Japan have since been resolved, meaning both countries now provide visa-free travel for all EU nationals.
But the U.S. still requires visas for the citizens of EU member nations Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania. Canada still has a visa requirement for the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, and Brunei still has a visa requirement for citizens of Croatia.
The visa waiver policies of the U.S., Canada and Brunei are now under review by the European Commission.
Visa reciprocity requirements established by the European Parliament and the European Council state that if a non-European country has not lifted its visa requirements within 24 months after being notified of a nonreciprocity issue, the European Commission must propose a temporary suspension of visa waivers for citizens of that country for a period of 12 months.
According to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, what is at issue is the fact that Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania have not yet met security requirements for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
"The objective of the VWP is to facilitate travel to the United States while maintaining high standards of security," said William Cocks, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "The program is open to countries that have very low nonimmigrant visitor visa refusal rates and immigration violations, issue secure travel documents and work closely with U.S. law enforcement and security authorities."
Cocks said that the State Department has maintained an open dialogue with EU officials, as well as with officials from those member countries that are required to get visas for travel to the U.S. about what progress is being made toward resolving the matter. He said this became an issue in January 2014 when an amendment to the EU Visa Code went into effect requiring that the European Commission seek visa-free entry for all EU member countries to non-European countries that can enter EU countries without a visa.
In explaining why the five European countries in question likely have not been granted VWP status yet, Steven Culbreath, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based immigration lawyer, said, "These issues usually have to do with document security, safety-screening procedures, antiterrorism measures and other immigration risk factors. The countries that participate are countries that satisfy the various concerns and generally pose a very low risk."
In the meantime, it remains to be seen how feasible it will be to suspend visa waiver privileges for U.S. travelers to Europe.
The U.S. reached its deadlines for reciprocity on April 12, which is when the European Commission asked the European Parliament and the European Council to launch discussions on an appropriate way to move forward, and to inform the Commission on their positions by July 16 at the latest.
But the visa reciprocity regulations require that the Commission take into account the political, administrative and economic consequences of the suspension of the visa waiver policy. That fact alone, according to the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), makes it highly unlikely that the proposal will come to fruition.
"Mercifully, both the Council and the European Parliament have to take into consideration the economic impact and the practicalities of any move," said Mario Bodini, chairman of the ETOA. "Even if the numbers were to drop, it would leave the main Schengen entry countries with a 10 million visa processing task. That alone should sink this idea."
The "Schengen" reference is to the area comprising 26 European countries that abolished passport and other types of border controls, enabling them to function as a single country for travel purposes, with a common visa policy.
Neither the ETOA nor the Commission is taking the proposal to rescind visa waiver privileges for U.S. citizens or its potential consequences lightly.
Travelers from the U.S. and Canada currently account for the largest percentage of arrivals from outside Europe, according to the European Travel Commission.
"The business of accommodating U.S. and Canadian visitors is an enormously important industry for Europe," the ETOA said. "We effectively sell them services worth approximately $57 billion, an export industry on the same level as the automotive sector. Millions of jobs are dependent on it."