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April 8, 2016

EU to Consider Visa Waiver Suspension for Americans

Washington, DC – Americans could be required to apply for a visa in order to visit European Union countries within a matter of months, with the EU set to consider suspending the Visa Waiver Program for the United States next Tuesday. The effort is the result of a reciprocity measure threatened by the EU in response to the United States’ longstanding exclusion of visa-free travel privileges for five EU countries and exacerbated by recent restrictions against certain EU dual nationals.  

Under EU requirements, if the U.S. does not instate visa-free travel privileges for all EU citizens by April 12, the European Commission must put forward a proposal to suspend visa-free travel for all Americans for 12 months. Any such action would not be immediately implemented, however, and would be subject to a four to six-month review by the European Parliament and European Council, who can act to block such action. 

The issue is of particular interest to the Iranian American community following the recent implementation of a U.S. law, “H.R. 158”, that terminated visa-free travel privileges to the U.S. for citizens of the EU if they are dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan, or have recently traveled to those countries. While the measure was ostensibly aimed at heightened security fears in the aftermath of ISIS terror attacks, the targeting of dual nationals and inclusion of Iran as a restricted country has spurred criticism from civil liberties groups and a massive outcry from the Iranian-American community. There are further concerns that, because the Visa Waiver Program is based on reciprocity, similar restrictions could be imposed on Iranian Americans and other dual nationals, and Americans who have visited Iran.

EU-reciprocity mechanism 

The potential for visa-free travel privileges to be suspended for Americans was confirmed in an EU response to a NIAC letter urging affected countries to forego reciprocal restrictions targeting dual nationals and travelers to Iran following passage of H.R.158.

One of the core principles of the European Union is that all EU citizens should be treated equally. As a consequence of a longstanding policy of the U.S. to not allow visa-free travel for certain EU states, the EU established a reciprocity mechanism to seek to ensure reciprocal visa-free travel for all their citizens. The reciprocity mechanism is a solidarity act that requires the European Commission – the executive body of the EU – to temporarily suspend visa-free travel of a third country for 12 months if visa-free travel is not provided for all EU-citizens. The process begins when a state files a complaint against a third country, triggering a 24-month window for that third country to adjust its policy. If the issue is not resolved within that window, the Commission is required to suspend visa free travel.

On April 12, 2014, the Commission presented a complaint filed by five member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cypress, Poland, and Romania) regarding their exclusion from visa-free travel to the U.S. The Commission and the U.S. have attempted to resolve the issue but without any success. With the recent restrictions on dual nationals, the EU and the U.S. are even further from a solution than before.

On April 12, 2016, the deadline for the reciprocity mechanism will be reached and the Commission is required to propose a temporary suspension of visa-free travel for U.S citizens. The European Council (consisting of heads of states of the member’s states, the president of Council and the Commission) and the European Parliament (the legislative body elected by EU citizens) have four months to object to the proposal, with the option to extend the period to six months. If they do not object, the Visa Waiver Program will be suspended for all U.S- Citizens and Americans will require visas to travel to Europe. 

The EU has not yet indicated they would take separate action to address restrictions imposed by H.R.158. For its part, the EU has articulated concerns about the efficiency of such restrictions, which they have stated affects dual-nationals “disproportionately and unfairly”. However, the H.R.158 restrictions have made EU reciprocal action against the US even more likely, whether it is through suspending the program entirely for all Americans or some separate reciprocal actions in the future or from the EU or states acting unilaterally.

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