On February 11, 2005, a significant forum on visa issues in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was organized on Capitol Hill by the East Europe Project at CSIS, together with Friends of Slovakia (FOS) and American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR). The meeting aimed to address the impact of current U.S. visa regulations on political and public relations with the CEE countries. Forum panelists and experts shed light on the legal intricacies of the visa issue and its implications for U.S.-CEE relations, urging for a reconsideration of the status quo.
Addressing the Asymmetry in Visa Regulations
Janusz Bugajski, director of the CSIS East Europe project, chaired the meeting and emphasized the need to acknowledge the asymmetry in the current U.S. visa guidelines, which created inequity for CEE citizens compared to their West European counterparts. He argued that including the CEE states, which are NATO and EU members, in the Visa Waiver Program would bolster U.S. public diplomacy efforts and strengthen relations with these staunch American allies.
Legal Criteria for Visa Waiver Program Acceptance
Mark Brzezinski, a panelist from McGuireWoods LLP, outlined the four criteria necessary for acceptance into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program: reciprocity, a nonimmigrant refusal rate of less than 3%, machine-readable passports, and the country’s inclusion not compromising U.S. security interests. He highlighted that 27 countries currently do not need visas for travel to the United States under the program. However, the acceptance criteria were considered arbitrary, as some countries, like Ireland, were included despite not fully meeting the requirements.
Brzezinski acknowledged that post-9/11 security concerns led to tighter border security measures, including the Visa Waiver Program. Overstays, stolen passports, and inefficiencies in the system were serious concerns for U.S. authorities, leading to discussions about suspending the program entirely. Nonetheless, the consequences of strict visa regulations were evident, with reduced scientific and technical exchanges and billions of dollars lost in potential revenue from the tourist industry.
Examining the Impact on Slovakia and the Czech Republic
Pavol Demeš, director for Central and Eastern Europe at GMF, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, pointed out that the visa policy between countries reflects the quality of their relationship. While Slovakia understands U.S. concerns about visa issuance, Demeš argued that the current visa policy does not reflect the strong U.S.-Slovak relationship, considering Slovakia’s role as a NATO ally and supporter in the fight against terrorism. He emphasized that fears of waves of illegal immigrants were unfounded, as demonstrated when EU borders opened, and Slovaks did not immigrate en masse.
Ivan Gabal, founder of Gabal Analysis and Consulting in Prague, the Czech Republic, echoed similar sentiments. He noted that the dual treatment of EU countries caused divisions within the Czech Republic, and broadening communication between the two nations through visa reform would help counter this trend. Gabal called for more clarity and transparency in the visa program’s application process to encourage academic and cultural exchanges and enhance bilateral relations.
During the discussion following the panel presentation, it was evident that the current visa regime needed revisiting. A clear roadmap for new EU member states should be established, with specific issues addressed bilaterally with each country. Moreover, modernizing border controls across and within the CEE region in compliance with the Schengen agreement would reduce the possibility of U.S.-bound criminals and terrorists using the region for transit. The forum on visa issues in Central and Eastern Europe highlighted the urgency of reevaluating current U.S. visa regulations to strengthen relations with these vital American allies. The panelists underlined the need for more clarity, fairness, and transparency in the visa process, emphasizing that the CEE states were willing to comply if given clear requirements and timetables. By acknowledging the true partnership of the CEE countries with the United States, through necessary visa reforms, both sides stand to benefit from enhanced political, economic, and strategic ties.