Open Letter on visas for Romanian nationals entering Canada

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Romanian MEP Sorin Moisă (PSD) has sent an open letter to the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, over visa requirement for Romanians and Bulgarians. An EU regulation from 2013 requires that third countries treat EU members without discrimination in visa matters.

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

I  am  writing  to  you  as  a  Member  of  the  European  Parliament  (MEP)  elected  in  Romania, with  regard  to  a  long-standing  issue  embittering  both  Romanian-Canadian  and  more generally  EU-Canada  relations:  visas  for  Romanians  entering  Canada.  The time has now come to confront this matter head-on.  The good news is that in 2016, this should be uncontroversial.

My interest in Canada goes far beyond this matter.  As  an  MEP  in  the  International  Trade Committee of the European Parliament, I am the spokesman of my group (the Socialists and Democrats –  S&D) for the EU-Canada free trade agreement (CETA). In that capacity, I have worked hard to bolster our chances to save this treaty by making it fairer and more legitimate for  both  European  and  Canadian  citizens,  addressing  the  toxic  investor-state  dispute settlement  (ISDS)  issue.

I  have  worked  with  Chrystia  Freeland,  your  excellent  Trade Minister,  with  your  Chief  Negotiator,  with  successive  Canadian  Ambassadors  and  other senior officials in Ottawa or Brussels. They can testify that I have never linked or conditioned in any way my CETA work on the Romanian visa issue. On the contrary, I have always made the point that we must all be mindful of the bigger picture.  I do believe CETA is one of the projects  that  the  Western  world  needs  in  order  to  shape  its  own  economic  future,  with  a strong Atlantic relationship being vital for that goal.  On the bilateral  front,  I cannot forget that Canada was the first allied nation to ratify Romania’s NATO’s accession, nor ignore that these very days, for example, joint military exercises with Canadian troops are taking place in Romania. Nor would it have been fair towards my non-Romanian colleagues in the S&D in Parliament to follow a separate agenda using my leading role on CETA as an un-transparent platform for other issues.  Not  creating  the  link,  on  the  other  hand,  did  not  spare  me  the political cost of appearing  not to address a situation which  is widely and rightly perceived as unfair. I am doing just that today, in the frankest and most transparent way.

What I think my work with your officials gives me is the moral credit of someone who, while defending European interests to the best of his abilities, has shown loyalty to a vital common cause and has been empathetic, open and supportive towards Canada and its citizens. Such moral credit allows me to suggest that you take a personal look at this embarrassing historic leftover.

Romania is subjected to administrative screening on some 40 political and technical criteria including human rights, political stability, fighting corruption, border management.  It  is doing  well  or  very  well  on  the  overwhelming  majority  of  those.  But  the  point  is  that  the screening itself is disproportionate for an EU Member State, that many of its indicators can lead to infinite speculation about what is “objective” reality when measured against unilateral and often unclear standards. Claims of objectivity can be easily challenged if one takes a look at  the  EU  Anti-Corruption  Report  or  the  Transparency  International  Corruption  Perception Index,  which  both  show  that  Romania  does  better  not  only  than  other  new,  but  also    than older or even founding EU Member States in very important areas included in the Canadian screening process. Nevertheless, these EU Member States have for long been visa-exempt.

Moreover, there is absolutely no comparison if we are to be honest and “objective”  between  Romania’s performance on any indicator pertaining to corruption and governance, and that of Mexico, for which the political decision to lift the visas has already been made.

Probably the most unjust thing about Canadian screening is that it follows already entrenched prejudices in a completely unnecessary way.  For example,  Romania’s  fight  against corruption.  Beyond any report or index, if you look without preconceived ideas you will see that  Romania  transformed  itself  in  a  truly  amazing  way  during  these  past  years,  which  is unfortunately not exactly a regional trend. You may also note that Romania is one of the very  few  countries  in  Europe  that  did  not  send  a  populist  or  extremist  party  to  the  European Parliament, and that its economy is growing at one of the fastest rates in Europe.

I have noted in the Canadian debate a lot of confusion between the right to free movement, the right to work, and migration issues, all «nicely» mixed up with the Brexit debate. It may therefore be worthwhile reminding Canadians that Romanians have been traveling visa -free in Europe since January 2002, and can travel within the EU on the basis of solely their ID card since 1 January 2007, when Romania joined the EU. This should not be confused with the right to work: some member states, including the UK, excluded Romanians from their labour market for seven years, until 1 January 2014. In January 2014 some British politicians made all of us smile by physically waiting in airports for a wave of Romanians that never came. This emphasises how the right to travel is different from the right to work, and that removing visas would only facilitate the former,  and  not the latter, which follows a different legal basis and economic logic. Furthermore, as a consequence of the “Czech issue” of 2009-2013, Canada has adapted its legislation so as to prevent abuse both on asylum applications and border crossing. Last year, for example, your customs officials denied entry to Canada to no less than 7.055 foreigners from visa-waiver countries. This relatively large number clearly shows  that  incidents  and  abuses  can  happen,  but  also  that  Canada  has  the  means  to  tackle them.  In  the  case  of  Romanians,  for  fear  of  isolated  incidents  you  are  punishing  an  entire nation in terms of status, and the overwhelming majority of travellers to Canada who would definitely be legitimate. That doesn’t seem fair.

Now let us take a look at the Romanian visa issue in the context of EU-Canada relations.

Firstly, while I have never made the CETA- visa link myself, the EU-Canada Summit that closed the CETA negotiations in September 2014 did it with outmost clarity:  “we commit to ensure, as soon as possible, visa-free travel between our countries for all Canadian and EU citizens, also so that they will benefit fully from the new trade and economic opportunities between Canada and the EU”.  If even the previous government committed to visa-free travel for all EU citizens (actually more than once), one can only expect the Trudeau government to naturally move on this quickly and effortlessly.

Secondly, chances are high that the Council of Ministers of the EU will decide that CETA is a mixed agreement. This means that all EU member state Parliaments will have to give their blessing to the agreement.

But the most sensitive situation of all is this: if by April Canada (among very few  others) does not end the situation of “non-reciprocity”, the European Commission is legally bound to issue what we call in EU talk a “delegated act” imposing visas on Canadians entering any EU country,  for  a  period  of  12  months.  The  Regulation  does  not  leave  the  Commission  any margin  of  manoeuvre:  “the  Commission  shall  adopt  a  delegated  act…“.  I  noted  some confusion in Canada about the nature of an EU delegated act: the truth is that it does not need to  be  voted  by  the  Council  and  the  European  Parliament  in  order  to  come  into  effect:  it always  comes  into  effect  unless  rejected  by  either  of  the  two  legislators,  by  mobilising  a qualified majority in the case of the Council and an absolute majority in that of the European Parliament. In other words, a majority will not be needed to approve the act, but to object to it if either institution takes that initiative. That difference is very significant for reasons I do not need to spell out. Whether or  not this system of addressing “non-reciprocity”  based on escalation is optimal and proportionate  when it comes to strategic partners  I don’t know, but for  the  moment  it  is  EU  law,  and  the  Commission  is  an  upholder  of  rule  of  law  par excellence.  It  is  difficult  to  anticipate  what  exactly  will  happen,  but  you  can  imagine  how delicate this is going to be…

Therefore, to conclude, removing visas for Romanians (and Bulgarians) this year would be just, would not bring any risks for Canada, would remove some  of the real  political risks to CETA’s  adoption,  and  would  spare  both  the  EU  and  Canada  an  embarrassing  legal  and political row. It would also be a natural thing to do – at long last – with regard to a friend and ally,  and  a  great  confirmation  of  the  new  Trudeau  era  of  vision,  fairness,  decency  and openness.

I will be in Ottawa next week for an official trade mission, and will also take the opportunity to discuss these matters with your Immigration Minister. I hope to hear good news from you or your Government on this matter soon.

Yours sincerely,

Sorin Moisă

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