Monday, April 21, 2008

Romania looks to Brussels for help in joining US visa waiver programme
12:32 Mon 21 Apr 2008 - Alex Bivol

Romanian prime minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu said that Romania stood a better chance to join the US visa waiver programme if the European Union handled the negotiations, rather than pursue a bilateral agreement with Washington.

"I believe that, from our point of view, it would be more opportune if the talks on lifting visa restrictions are held between the US and the EU. We must be realist, the EU has more influence than Romania in any kind of negotiations with the US,"Tariceanu said during a talk-show on Realitatea TV private broadcaster on April 19.

Tariceanu said he talked about the visa waiver issue with US president George W. Bush during the Nato summit in Bucharest earlier this month, receiving a show of support from both Bush and secretary of state Condoleeza Rice.

US consular services rejected a total of 37.7 per cent of applications submitted by Romanian citizens last year, the highest refusal rate for an EU member state. To qualify for the visa waiver programme, an applicant country must have at most 10 per cent rate of rejections.

Romania's biggest grievance was that the reasons for rejections were never explained by consulate officials, Tariceanu said. At the same time, there were no reasons to believe that Romanians were more likely to attempt to become illegal immigrants by staying beyond the expiration date of their visas. "I do not think that there is any fundamental difference between Romanian applicants and Poles, Hungarians or Czechs," he said.

Earlier last week, Richard Barth, assistant secretary at the US department of homeland security, said that Romania would have to meet the same criteria as other countries in Eastern Europe. Barth visited Bucharest to discuss Romania’s progress towards meeting the criteria to be considered for the visa waiver programme with officials from the interion and foreign ministries.

"We cannot set artificial goals or lower standards. According to US law, every visa case has to be adjudicated individually, on its merits," US ambassador Nicholas Taubman, who attended the meeting, said.

He added: "Most Romanians traveling to the US do respect the terms of their visas, but overstays and illegal work remain a significant problem. Romanians who hold US tourist visas can do their part to lower the refusal rate by not working in the US and by departing the US on time."

Bulgaria, which joined the EU together with Romania in January 2007, hopes to seal a bilateral memorandum of understanding, the first step towards joining the visa waiver programme, already by the end of this year. It rejection rate went down from 23 per cent to 14 per cent over the past two years.

But Bulgaria needed to prove that it could fight organised crime in an effective manner if it wanted the US to lift visa restrictions for Bulgarian nationals, US consul in Sofia Daniel Perrone said on March 28.

So far, seven EU countries that joined the bloc in 2004 - Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Malta - have signed in recent months memoranda of understanding detailing future efforts towards joining the visa waiver programme.

The European Commission, however, has long insisted that it should handle the negotiations, fearing that member states would provide more personal information on its citizens that they are allowed under EU rules, in order to have visa restrictions lifted. It has threatened legal action against the member countries that go too far, saying that "the commission continues to have concerns with certain aspects of these bilateral agreements and reserves the right to take action."

Last week, interior ministers agreed that the EC would negotiate the conditions for a deal allowing all member countries to participate in the visa waiver programme.

"I believe that the mandate provides for clear directives for the Commission to negotiate certain issues of exclusive EC competence with the US," Commission vice-president Jacques Barrot said.

The EC would handle talks on the visa waiver programme conditions that fall under the responsibility of the EU's executive body, but other issues would be left for individual member states to negotiate on their own, Barrot said.

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