Detour around Brussels Estonia, Latvia Sign Visa-Waiver Deals with US

Estonia and Latvia are signing their own visa-waiver deals with the US, paving the way for their citizens to enter the country without visas. The European Union is annoyed at the move, which Commission officials feel undermines their authority.

Estonia and Latvia are taking a detour around Brussels in the quest for visa-free travel.

Estonia and Latvia are taking a detour around Brussels in the quest for visa-free travel.

Impatient at the slow pace of European Union negotiations, two Baltic states are setting up their own deals with the US to provide visa-free travel for their citizens, despite protests from Brussels.

Estonia signed a bilateral visa-waiver deal with the US on Wednesday morning, with Latvia due to follow suit later on Wednesday.

Most of the EU's 27 members have visa-waiver deals with the US, allowing their citizens to enter the country for short visits without visas. However all but one of the 12 states that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, most of which are in Eastern Europe, have no such deals. Neither does Greece, which has been an EU member since 1981.

Some of the new EU states, impatient at the slow pace of EU-US negotiations on the issue, have pressed on with their own bilateral deals. The Czech Republic already reached its own visa-waiver agreement with the US in February in return for increased cooperation on air security and Hungary is expected to reach a similar agreement later in March.

The move by the Eastern European states is creating tension with the European Commission, which wants to be the single negotiator with the US on visa-waiver deals. The Commission, which has already tried to put pressure on the US to give citizens of all EU states visa-free travel, feels bilateral deals infringe on its authority over visa and border policy. It is also worried that such deals might allow the US to pressure individual countries to give US authorities additional data on air passengers on top of that stipulated in an existing US-EU agreement.

Speaking in the Estonian capital Tallinn Wednesday, US Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said the Estonian deal was a "win-win for everyone." He dismissed concerns that Estonia was circumventing Brussels: "There is nothing that is not in agreement with EU competences."

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Tuesday that Estonia had been striving toward visa-free travel for four years and refused to wait any longer. "It strikes me as odd that countries that have had visa-waiver deals for decades suddenly say that you can't have them," he said.

European Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said Tuesday he hoped that a visa-waiver program for all EU states could be endorsed by Washington at an EU-US summit in June and be implemented by the end of the year.

However a US Homeland Security official, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Associated Press that the US was not considering a blanket enrollment of the EU into the scheme and was instead negotiating deals with individual countries.

One EU ambassador told the Financial Times that the quarrel between Brussels and the new EU members threatened to overshadow an EU summit on Thursday and Friday. "The atmosphere is extremely tense on this. It might explode in a really bad way," the ambassador said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile on Tuesday Germany and the US signed a bilateral agreement on sharing personal data, fingerprints and DNA samples of people suspected of terrorist activity. Under the new deal, which needs to be approved by the US and Germany's parliaments, each country can query the other about whether they have information on a particular terrorist suspect.

"We are fighting a networked international enemy and therefore we have to respond with a global network of our own," said Chertoff, who was in Berlin to sign the agreement together with German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Speaking at a press conference hosted by the American Academy at Berlin's Adlon Hotel, Chertoff said the data-sharing plan between the US and Germany was part of a larger project to set up international "tripwires that allow the vast majority of people to pass unimpeded" but catch terrorists as they cross international borders.

Schäuble said that worries about personal freedom being abused were "exaggerated." "It doesn't help to always be PC," he said. "The world has changed a whole lot."

Critics in Germany say the agreement violates German privacy laws, but US and German officials said they hoped the agreement would pave the way for similar deals between the US and other EU members.



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