US PRESIDENT George W. Bush has promised the new members of the EU that he will work to ease existing travel restrictions on nationals from Central and Eastern Europe seeking to visit America.
The vow, made during Bush's visit to the Estonian capital of Tallinn on November 28, answers demands across "New Europe" that the US visa requirement be lifted. Of the 10 states that joined the EU in May 2004, only Slovenia is included in the US visa-waiver program, which allows tourists or business travelers to spend up to 90 days in the country without a visa. Currently, 27 countries are included in the scheme, mostly Western European states.
Along with other post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia has long tried to persuade the US to lift its travel restrictions, arguing that it is a member of NATO and a faithful supporter of the US and its policies across the world.
"I am pleased to announce that I am going to work with our Congress and our international partners to modify our visa-waiver program," Bush said at a press conference on his visit to Tallinn.
The visa-waiver program was created in 1988 to prevent illegal immigration to the US. Over the years it has been modified to put greater stress on security, particularly with regards to the terrorist threat.
Slovak authorities have welcomed Bush's latest promise of easier access to the US.
"The Foreign Ministry highly appreciates and welcomes the initiative of US President George W. Bush to modify the visa-waiver program," the ministry said in a statement to The Slovak Spectator. "It should lead to simpler travel and to a cancellation of the visa duty for the citizens of new EU member states traveling to the US.
"We regard the visa duty as the only open problem in our bilateral relations with the US. Slovak officials have brought up this topic at all levels - within bilateral talks, in the EU, as well as through the Coalition for Visa Equality [established by Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic]. We see President Bush's announcement as the result of several years of activity and as an outgoing step by the US towards resolving an issue which has burdened our bilateral relations."
However, diplomats were quick to warn that change could take time, if it came at all.
"This is not something that can happen within a few days," said Slovakia's ambassador to the US, Rastislav Káčer. "The legislative process in the US is not simple, and the cancellation of the visas may take up to two years."
According to the Foreign Ministry, Slovakia is ready to cooperate closely with the US in fulfilling the security and technical conditions in order to enter the visa-waiver program.
Slovakia has already set a deadline for the introduction of passports with biometric data, such as fingerprints, and has also pledged to keep the original deadline for entry into the EU's outer border system, the visa-free Schengen zone, in fall 2007.
"The visit of Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš to the US as well as those of other Slovak officials in the first half of next year will also focus on the new security measures announced by the US president," reads the ministry statement.
Just as the Slovak ministry sees Bush's announcement as the result of years of talks, analysts also said the statement did not come as a surprise.
"The statement of US President George Bush is not revolutionary. During his talks with political representatives in the past, he mentioned several times that he would try to open a debate in the US in order to change the visa regime," Ivo Samson, a foreign policy analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, told The Slovak Spectator.
"If he really does [open a debate] now, it will have a positive impact, but the final decision still lies with the US Congress. Congress will also have to abolish an absurd rule passed by the Senate, according to which one of the conditions for lifting the visa duty is the number of soldiers a given country has serving with armed operations led by the US and NATO," Samson said.
"Other than that, there are no barriers to lifting the visa duty for Central and Eastern European states."
The analyst said that security was no longer the primary issue in deciding whether to admit these new states into the visa-waiver program.
"The citizens of some Western European states represent a much greater risk for the US. Nor do economic issues stand in the way [of abolishing visas for Central Europeans] considering that illegal Hispanic migrants represent an incomparably greater burden in this respect," Samson said.
He noted, however, that the US was unlikely to abolish the visa duty for all new EU members, including Bulgaria and Romania. "They will also have to think how to explain this to Greece, for instance, which does not have a visa-waiver program, or to Argentina, whose visa-waiver program was cancelled.
"It is also likely that the visa duty for more than just the Central and Eastern European states will be re-evaluated."