World First Look

Why the European Parliament voted to require visas for US visitors

The Parliament wants the European Commission to force the US to either institute full reciprocity on visa policy or face a temporary suspension of visa-free access.

View of the European Parliament during a plenary session on March 2, 2017.
Yves Herman/Reuters
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Lawmakers in the European Parliament voted on Thursday to temporarily strip away visa-free access for United States citizens if the US government did not grant equivalent access to the citizens of five European Union countries.

The vote by the Parliament puts pressure on the European Commission to reach an overdue conclusion on what to do about the lack of reciprocity – a conclusion that could include a one-year imposition of visa requirements for US citizens.

Currently, Americans can visit all 26 EU member countries without a visa for three months at a time, but visitors to the United States from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania are required to secure visas.

The Commission was first sent a notification on the matter in April 2014. According to EU rules, the Commission must decide, within two years of a notification, whether to respond by ending visa-free access for the country in question.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in April 2016, limiting US citizens’ access to Europe might be a hard sell within the bloc, since the bulk of tourist dollars usually end up in pockets outside of the five countries that are currently denied visa-free access:

[T]he five countries pushing the hardest for this requirement currently benefit very little from the tourism industry. France, Spain, and Italy – three EU countries whose citizens are already able to visit the US visa-free – were in the top five for international tourists in 2014, boasting between 83.7 and 48.5 million visitors. These figures hardly compare to Bulgaria and Romania's tourist statistics, which measured between seven and eight million in 2014. And Cyprus only had 2.4 million visitors in 2014.

"It is important that the European economy does not become a victim," the European Tourism Association (ETOA) said in a statement. "The business of accommodating US and Canadian visitors is an enormously important industry for Europe. We effectively sell them services worth approximately 50 billion Euros ($56.87 billion)…. Millions of jobs are dependent on it." 

The timing of the first notice was inconvenient for an Obama administration that was in the midst of formal negotiations with EU officials over ways to increase cooperation, including a free-trade deal with the EU, reported The New York Times at the time.

The trade deal may not be a consideration with the Trump White House, though the other issue believed to be a concern – security – may be. 

The United States was one of five countries considered not to be meeting obligations for visa reciprocity by the EU, along with Australia, Brunei, Japan, and Canada.

The first three countries on that list, notes the EU Parliament’s news service, have since revised their policies. And Canada has announced that it will lift visa requirements for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in December 2017.

On Thursday, the European Parliament urged the Commission to adopt new visa requirements against US citizens within two months.

An official with the Commission told Reuters that it was in contact with the United States “to push for full visa reciprocity.”

"The Commission will report on further progress before the end of June 2017," wrote the official in an emailed statement to Reuters.

This report contains material from Reuters.