Parliamentary Tracker : a new episode of the EU-US visa waiver saga…

by Emilio De Capitani

Yesterday March 2nd the European Parliament has adopted a resolution (see below ) by which it has set a deadline to the Commission to adopt a delegated act which will trigger the reciprocity mechanism with the US because it still  does not grant a visa waiver to all the EU citizens. The latest Plenary debate on this subject took place following an oral question on December 14, 2016 (see here  and below the intervention of the LIBE Chairman and of the Commissioner Avramopoulos)

It is worth recalling that Reciprocity  is a basic principle framing the relations between States in the international arena and that in the visa policy domain the EU Member States may no more trigger alone this mechanism since the transfer of visa policies to the  EU 25 years ago with the Treaty of Maastricht.

The main EU legislative text dealing with reciprocity in visa domain is the Council Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 of 15 March 2001  which has been amended dozen times also in codecision  since the entry into force of the Amsterdam treaty (1999) and the gradual transfer of these policies under the “ordinary” regime.  The problem is that this transfer of competence from the MS to the EU has been recognized by almost all the third States except Canada, and ..the US. However, as far as Canada is concerned Prime Minister Trudeau has just confirmed that  the visa requirement will be lifted for all EU citizens  in December this year.

As far as the US are concerned  the European Commission was notified on April 2014, that  the EU citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania still cannot enter US territory without a visa, while US citizens can travel to all EU countries visa-free.

On the US side the visa issue has still to be settled bilaterally with each EU member state concerned (see the US legal framework here) and to obtain the US visa waiver the Country concerned should give access to a vast amount of confidential information and respect some strict thresholds connected to the return of its nationals. The point is that if the same standards were applied to the EU as a whole the visa waiver would be granted to everyone but for the US the EU is still not yet a valid counterpart because national  passport remain …national (?!). Needless to say this situation make furious the EU member states whose citizens are not granted the visa waiver (see the Polish position here) because they are no more competent in this domain. Their only possibility is to notify the situation to the Commission (as they did on 12 April 2014) so that the Commission can do its best to find in a two years time a positive solution with the third State concerned. According to the EU regulation into force if the situation is not settled the Commission should adopt a delegated act ( to which both Parliament and the Council may object following art 290 of TFEU) suspending the visa waiver for the third Country national for 12 months.

By so doing not only the EU will preserve the equality between its member states (who can no more protect themselves) but will ensure that all the EU citizens enjoy the same protection. The point is that  the Commission should have acted before 12 April 2016 as far as the US and Canada were concerned but almost one year later it has yet to take any legal measure  (see the latest Commission communication here )

Will the Commission obtain from the Trump administration what has been unable to obtain from the previous Bush and Obama administration ? We may have some doubts but the road ahead looks rather bumpy ..

——————————–

European Parliament resolution of 2 March 2017 on obligations of the Commission in the field of visa reciprocity in accordance with Article 1(4) of Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 (2016/2986(RSP))

The European Parliament,

–      having regard to Council Regulation (EC) No 539/20011, in particular Article 1(4)

thereof (‘the reciprocity mechanism’),

–      having regard to the Commission communication of 12 April 2016 entitled ‘State of play and the possible ways forward as regards the situation of non-reciprocity with certain third countries in the area of visa policy’ (COM(2016)0221),

–      having regard to the Commission communication of 13 July 2016 entitled ‘State of play and the possible ways forward as regards the situation of non-reciprocity with certain third countries in the area of visa policy (Follow-up of the Communication of 12 April)’ (COM(2016)0481),

–      having regard to the Commission communication of 21 December 2016 entitled ‘State of play and the possible ways forward as regards the situation of non-reciprocity with certain third countries in the area of visa policy (Follow-up to the Communication of 12 April)’ (COM(2016)0816),

–      having regard to Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and Articles 80, 265 and 290 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU),

–      having regard to its debate on ‘Obligations in the field of visa reciprocity’ held on 14 December 2016 in Strasbourg,

–      having regard to the question to the Commission on obligations of the Commission in the field of visa reciprocity in accordance with Article 1(4) of Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 (O-000142/2016 – B8-1820/2016),

–      having regard to the motion for a resolution of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs,

–      having regard to Rules 128(5) and 123(2) of its Rules of Procedure,

A. whereas the criterion of visa reciprocity as one of the criteria guiding the EU’s visa
policy is generally understood to imply that EU citizens should be subject to the same
conditions when travelling to a third country as the nationals of that third country are when travelling to the EU;

B. whereas the purpose of the visa reciprocity mechanism is to achieve such visa
reciprocity; whereas the EU’s visa policy prohibits individual Member States from
introducing a visa requirement for nationals of a third country if this country is listed in Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 (countries whose nationals are exempt from the visa requirement for short stays);

C. whereas the reciprocity mechanism was revised in 2013, with Parliament acting as co-legislator, as it needed to be adapted in the light of the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon and of the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union on secondary legal bases and ‘to provide for a Union response as an act of solidarity, if a third country listed in Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 applies a visa requirement for nationals of at least one Member State’ (Recital 1 of Regulation (EU) No 1289/2013);

D. whereas the reciprocity mechanism sets out a procedure starting with a situation of non-reciprocity with precise timeframes and actions to be taken with a view to ending a situation of non-reciprocity; whereas its inherent logic entails measures of increasing severity vis-à-vis the third country concerned, including ultimately the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirement for all nationals of the third country concerned (‘second phase of application of the reciprocity mechanism’);

E. whereas ‘in order to ensure the adequate involvement of the European Parliament and of the Council in the second phase of application of the reciprocity mechanism, given the particularly sensitive political nature of the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirement for all the nationals of a third country listed in Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 and its horizontal implications for the Member States, the Schengen associated countries and the Union itself, in particular for their external relations and for the overall functioning of the Schengen area, the power to adopt acts in accordance with Article 290 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union [was] delegated to the Commission in respect of certain elements of the reciprocity mechanism’ including the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirement for all nationals of the third country concerned;

F. whereas ‘the European Parliament or the Council may decide to revoke the delegation’ (Article 290(2)(a) TFEU);

G. whereas a delegated act ‘may enter into force only if no objection has been expressed by the European Parliament or the Council within a period set by the legislative act’
(Article 290(2)(b) TFEU);

H. whereas the Commission contested the choice of delegated acts in the second phase of application of the reciprocity mechanism before the Court of Justice of the European Union, and whereas the Court considered however the choice of the legislator to be correct (Case C-88/14);

I. whereas the mechanism thereby clearly assigns obligations and responsibilities to Parliament and the Council and to the Commission in the different phases of the reciprocity mechanism;

  1. Considers the Commission to be legally obliged to adopt a delegated act – temporarily suspending the exemption from the visa requirement for nationals of third countries which have not lifted the visa requirement for citizens of certain Member States – within a period of 24 months from the date of publication of the notifications in this regard, which ended on 12 April 2016;
  2. Calls on the Commission, on the basis of Article 265 TFEU, to adopt the required delegated act within two months from the date of adoption of this resolution at the latest;
  3. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Commission, the European Council, the Council and the national parliaments.

(1) 1 OJ L 81, 21.3.2001, p. 1.

EXCERPT EP DEBATE (December 14) VISA RECIPROCITY

Claude MORAES (author of the Oral Question). – Mr President, (…) We now come to the important oral question, which many colleagues have been waiting for, on the very important, compelling and urgent issue of visa reciprocity. As colleagues will know, this is an ongoing issue of urgency, not just for those five countries and the citizens of those five countries – Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus – but indeed a matter of principle for the whole House on questions of symmetry and equality in our relationship with the United States.

In 2013, Parliament and the Council adopted a regulation modifying, amongst other elements, the so-called reciprocity mechanism. It entered into force in January 2014. Under EU law and according to this mechanism, if a third country does not lift visa requirements 24 months after notification of a situation of non—reciprocity, the Commission is obliged to suspend the visa waiver for citizens of that country for 12 months, via a delegated act to which Parliament and the Council could object.

Notifications of five Member States – and I have named them – were published by the Commission on 12 April 2014. There were at times cases of non—reciprocity also affecting Australia, Japan and Brunei and all of them have now been solved. After 24 months had elapsed, on 12 April 2016, the Commission, instead of presenting the delegated act as we required, decided to publish a communication asking the Council and Parliament for their views. This communication was followed by another communication on 13 July updating the situation and again failing to fulfil the Commission’s obligations.

As Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, it is my view that the reciprocity mechanism sets out a procedure with precise time frames and actions not subject to discretionality by the Commission. Therefore, the Commission is under an obligation to adopt a delegated act pursuant to Article 1(4)(f) of Regulation 539/2001.

As the Commissioner knows, on 7 June 2016, I sent a letter reminding you, Commissioner, of the legal obligations of the Commission here. On 12 October, during the exchange we had with you in the Civil Liberties Committee, the Commission was again urged to act and all the Members who took the floor made it clear that the Commission does have some more room for manoeuvre. This was our view.

In this context, and with an overwhelming majority, we have in the Civil Liberties Committee adopted the following oral question for answer today: do you share the legal assessment according to which the Commission is obliged to adopt a delegated act – temporarily suspending the exemption from the visa requirement for nationals of third countries which have not lifted the visa requirement for citizens of certain EU Member States – within a period of 24 months from the date of publication of the notifications in this regard, which ended on 12 April 2016? In the event that the Commission agrees with the assessment that it is obliged to adopt a delegated act, by when will the Commission present this delegated act? And finally, if the Commission does not agree, what are the reasons for not agreeing with that assessment?

This issue, as I said at the beginning of my presentation of this oral question, is not just about the deep and very understandable concerns of our colleagues from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus; it is about the idea that we in the EU have the right to expect symmetry and equality with the United States in our relationship. We are right to expect fairness. The right to expect fairness is something that we have transmitted directly to our United States partners and to the State Department in Washington, and we did so respectfully and forcefully

(…)

Commissioner AVRAMOPOULOS : Mr President, honourable Members of the Parliament, let me start by telling you that I welcome the opportunity to discuss this very important matter, being already fully aware of your expectations. In October I discussed this with the members of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). You will remember that, Mr Moraes. It should be clear that we all share the same objective. Full visa reciprocity is the central principle of our visa policy framework. With the United States and Canada it is a challenging and sensitive issue, and we all hope for tangible progress.

Before responding to the questions, let me start with the good news concerning Canada. As I told you in the past, I used the window of opportunity offered to us, the EU-Canada summit. A series of meetings and discussions were held ahead in order to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. I took the plane myself to meet in person the Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum, in order to address the real situation at political and not at technocratic level. We had a very constructive discussion with the minister and we agreed to engage in a political process to address each other’s concerns and make the lifting of visa obligations for Romania and Bulgaria possible. Indeed, and as I had hinted in my meeting with LIBE, Canada took a positive decision in line with the commitment of McCallum in July. At the summit Canada announced its decision to lift in late 2017 the visa requirements for all Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. Moreover, certain categories of Bulgarian and Romanian travellers who visited Canada in the past 10 years, or who currently possess a valid visa issued by the United States, will already become visa-free from 1 May 2017.

We all welcome very much this outcome. It is a strong indication that diplomatic channels and engagement can achieve positive results. On this point, I would like to thank Members of Parliament for their constructive contribution too. We worked in close coordination with Bulgaria and Romania and they played a central role in addressing Canadian concerns. We have to continue this path to ensure that full visa waiver is achieved. The Commission will continue to do its part, in full cooperation with both Member States.

Now the situation with the United States is different. While I continue discussions with our US partners, most recently at the EU-US JHA Ministerial Meeting on 5 December in Washington, there is no progress to report. But I want to assure you that I will keep this issue high on the agenda with the new administration and Congress. I will personally immediately engage in conference with my new counterparts. I call on all of you to give a chance for the political discussion to take place and to explain the mutual obligations, reservations, goals and work to find a solution.

It is very important to understand that the role of Congress is crucial. The visa waiver programme cannot be expanded without Congress, particularly if Member States do not meet the thresholds of US legislation. It seems certain that temporarily suspending the visa waiver for US citizens would immediately lead to a visa requirement imposed on all EU citizens. We are aiming for the opposite, not a reciprocal visa requirement but a reciprocal visa waiver. Let me be very clear. The Commission would not hesitate to adopt the respective acts if that would improve the situation of EU citizens, and lead to the visa waiver for all. At the same time, the Commission has a responsibility to inform you, the co-legislators, about negative consequences on the EU and its citizens from the implementation of our rules.

And this leads me to your questions. There is a regulation that says ‘the Commission shall adopt a delegated act’. But there are also other requirements and obligations to be followed which are difficult to reconcile with this obligation, and which are equally important. The same regulation says that: ‘the Commission shall take into account the consequences of the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirements for the external relations of the Union and its Member States with the third country in question’.

The approach we put forward back in April outlined these adverse consequences. We still consider that the negative impacts we identified, which were not questioned by other institutions and stakeholders, should be taken fully into account. If a visa requirement is reintroduced, it will be difficult to explain to millions of EU citizens travelling to the United States every year that the EU serves their interests and that the EU action was appropriate in this case. Would legal arguments be convincing for thousands of EU citizens that would likely lose their jobs due to the expected decrease of US visitors? I very much doubt it.

A recent study for the World Travel and Tourism Council suggests that suspending the visa waiver would annually lead to a 22% drop in visitors to the European Union, or 5.5 million fewer visitors from the United States and Canada. This will be equal to a loss of EUR 6.8 billion annually, risking the loss of 140 000 jobs in the tourism industry. The most affected Member States will be Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. I am asking the question: can we really afford that loss?

Dear Members of Parliament, we are in a very unpleasant situation, but determined to work to achieve visa-free travel for all EU citizens to the United States, as we managed to do with Canada. Let us work together in this effort

 

 

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