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SPECIAL FOCUS - BUSH-PUTIN SUMMIT -THREE ORGANIZATIONS PRESENT A COMPELLING CASE TO REMOVE VISA RESTRICTIONS

Slovaks want to travel like friends

FORGET reducing lines, lowering costs and capping rejection rates. Citizens of new EU member states want what the rest of Europe has: visa-free travel to the United States.
Three special interest groups - CSIS East Europe Project, Friends of Slovakia and American Friends of the Czech Republic - sponsored a "Roundtable on Visa Issues in Central and Eastern Europe" in the hopes of influencing US policy on the matter.

FORGET reducing lines, lowering costs and capping rejection rates. Citizens of new EU member states want what the rest of Europe has: visa-free travel to the United States.

Three special interest groups - CSIS East Europe Project, Friends of Slovakia and American Friends of the Czech Republic - sponsored a "Roundtable on Visa Issues in Central and Eastern Europe" in the hopes of influencing US policy on the matter.

According to the Friends of Slovakia, the purpose of the roundtable, which took place in Washington, DC, on February 11, was to provide compelling arguments to the US executive branch explaining why the current visa regime is damaging friendly transatlantic relations.

"The US and the new EU members from Central Europe have warm relations with one another. Difficulty in travel to the US by EU citizens harms these relations in the long run.

As full allies and partners of the US, Slovak and Czech citizens should be entitled to the same visa conditions as most of our other NATO allies," Jan Surotchak, who sits on the Friends of Slovakia board of directors, told The Slovak Spectator.

About 80 participants - including representatives from the US Defense and Homeland Security departments and diplomats from the four new Central European EU members - listened to the roundtable panellists describe the problems with the current system, the damage it causes and the need for both sides to sit down and work out a solution.

Pavol Demeš of the German Marshall Fund and Prague consultant Ivan Gabal presented their case in favour of changing the visa regime and expressed hope that the US would work with the governments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic to ameliorate the problem.

Prominent Washington lawyer and expert on the Visa Waiver program, Mark Brzezinski, summarized the legislative background of the Visa Waiver Law and some of the complexities of liberalizing the law.

Currently, there are several hurdles to overcome to visit the US as a tourist.

According to Surotchak, if a young person with modest means and no financial assets wants to visit friends in America, the US visa law requires that he or she demonstrate an intention to return home and not overstay the visa.

"Post-9/11 restrictions also slow down visa issuances; in some cases the law requires that the applicant take part in security practices, such as photographing visitors, that some find intrusive," Surotchak explained.

A research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation, Dr Ariel Cohen agrees that the visa situation is causing apprehension and could strain relations between the US and its Central European allies.

"I think that [the visa problem] has become a real issue in the relationship between the US and not just Slovakia but also Poland.

"There's a huge Polish emigrant community in the US, especially in the mid-West, and these people don't understand why the visa requirements are as stringent as they are."

Cohen says that Slovaks have to understand the trauma the US suffered on 9/11 and the importance of having the US homeland secure from penetration by terrorists.

"Terrorists are capable of obtaining visas from all kinds of countries - not just the Middle East or South Asia but also from Europe.

"Unfortunately, a lot of ordinary, law-abiding citizens who are friends of America don't understand or realize the size of this threat when we have [terrorists] trying to enter the US from places like Germany and Spain," he said.

Freedom House Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe John Kubiniec disagrees that homeland security is the top justification for keeping the visa regime in place for new EU member states in Central Europe.

"I would say that old-fashion concerns are more important here. The concern that a large number of Central European visitors would overstay their visa and take up employment is more a concern than homeland security."

According to Kubiniec, the US has eased the visa process in Central Europe, such as by putting special rules in place in Poland to make it easier to apply.

But he said such simplifications are not stemming the tide of bitterness that is developing in new EU members in Central Europe about the visa issue.

"In some circles there's a bitterness. I don't think people expect something for free, but I think they expect a certain recognition for their participation and better treatment, and I think that's reflected in the visa issue," Kubiniec said.

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