The citizens of most EU countries travel without visas to a list of foreign countries, listed in annex II of Council Regulation No 539/2001.
But the nationals of some new EU member states still need a visa to travel to countries such as the United States, Canada or Australia.
A regulation which entered into force on 20 December requires EU countries to "react in common" on visa matters, especially in cases where foreign countries "subjects [EU] citizens to differing treatment”.
If within six months the problem is not solved, the EU could introduce visas for US diplomats, the Commission warned.
But diplomats of the countries concerned told EurActiv they would continue to negotiate bilaterally to solve the problem.
New EU regulation on visa matters
According to the new regulation, the Commission can temporarily suspend the EU's own visa exemptions on foreign countries if they have not lifted their visa requirements within six month.
The Commission has warned in the past that such rules may force American diplomats to apply for visas to travel to the European Union, if Washington doesn’t lift the visa requirement for individual EU countries (see background).
The new legislation is an initiative of the European Parliament, which in a 2012 report drew a list of third countries maintaining visa requirements on some EU countries.
Canada requires visas for nationals of Bulgaria and Romania, while Australia in theory applies a unified system of treatment of visa requests to all EU countries, but its visa grant to nationals of Bulgaria and Romania is by far the lowest.
According to MEPs, the Lisbon Treaty gives new powers to the Union to request that its member countries are treated as a whole and that the USA reciprocates on visa policy.
US pressure on data exchange
The four EU countries were reportedly asked by Washington to sign certain bilateral agreements as a precondition for benefitting from the US Visa Waiver Program.
One of them is a 2003 provision for the exchange of terrorism screening information (HSPD-6), which called for the establishment of a single consolidated watchlist to improve the identification, screening, and tracking of known or suspected terrorists and their supporters [more].
Another is the agreement on Preventing and Combating Serious Crime (PSCS), requiring signatory countries to share biometric and other data of individuals, for the purpose of preventing, detecting and investigating serious criminal activity and terrorism, on a query basis. The US has signed such agreements with a number of EU countries already.
But the European Commission is reportedly not happy that individual countries sign data exchange agreements with the USA in the absence of a so-called EU-US Umbrella Agreement on data protection, which ensures EU citizens keep their rights when their data is processed in the US.
Diplomats from the countries lacking reciprocity in their visa affairs told EurActiv that their capitals would notify the Commission of their situation with third countries before the deadline of 9 February.
According to the new regulation, if the US still applies visas for those countries 90 days following notification, the Commission may decide to suspend EU visa exemption for “certain categories of US nationals”, a jargon term referring to holders of diplomatic passports.
However, diplomats said they would pursue bilateral negotiations as well, suggesting they did not put too much hope in the EU common effort.
Indeed, when the new regulation was adopted in December, it was accompanied by a statement by several member states who said that while raising the issue, the EU countries would also “take into account potential adverse political consequences that might arise from such proposals or decisions for the external relations, both of the Union and its Member States”.
“This applies in particular to external relations with strategic partners,” says the statement, signed by Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, but also Poland, a country under US visa requirement.