Europe has had one of its most extraordinary and game-changing months in recent history. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has had implications all over the world, and will almost certainly lead to the shrinking of the EU and changes to the economy. However, before any of this happened, officials from the European Union met to discuss key topics regarding the Visa Waiver Program that it shares with the USA; this all revolves around a core debate that has been going on for years now. With important talks taking place earlier this year, it could all be resolved at last.
Essentially, the purpose of these talks has been to encourage the USA to add more EU countries to the Visa Waiver Program. Currently, the US Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 38 countries to visit the United States without the need for a visa, provided they are traveling for tourism or business (among a few other reasons). The program has been enormously successful and popular, and has no doubt been highly beneficial to US tourism on the whole. What traditionally is a long, bureaucratic process of requesting a visa through a US embassy or consulate, was replaced for many by a simple online ESTA application form (ESTA is the ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorization’, and is the travel authorization that can be used instead of a visa for successful applicants).
Since its conception back in the 1980s, the Visa Waiver Program has continually expanded, and at the start of this millennium the EU adopted a very similar scheme for its US counterparts. However, it seems that 2016 will be a pivotal year for its future. What many of us often forget is that, given that many citizens of VWP countries can travel to the USA without a visa, the same system exists in reverse. Thus, US citizens enjoy the ability to travel to VWP countries without a visa, with conditions that are very similar to those of the US Visa Waiver Program. The controversy arises with this very fact: whilst it is widely believed that all countries in the European Union are eligible to travel with ESTA, this is not the case. As it stands, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania do not form part of the list of countries that benefit from visa-free travel to the USA. In some cases, this means that US citizens enjoy visa-free travel to countries whose residents are not granted the same privilege.
As you can see, this is the heart of the debate. The EU are calling for the USA to add these countries to the list of states that can travel visa-free to the USA, thus making the Visa Waiver Program cover the entirety of the European Union. So, what’s the problem? The problem is the USA simply do not want to incorporate these countries into the Visa Waiver Program. Security is the primary concern here, particularly owing to the highly alarming events of recent months, both in Europe and the USA. Also, one of the main criteria for accepting countries into the Visa Waiver Program is a generally high acceptance of visa applications; if this is not the case, the USA tends to be reluctant to subject the country’s citizens to an automated screening process.
In essence, the USA have been formally asked to add these five EU states to their list of Visa Waiver Program countries. But what if they don’t? Well, it’s hard to speculate on complex legislative issues that concern dozens of countries on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s safe to say that any reaction will lead to a fair amount of red tape and further discussions. The worst case scenario, without a doubt, would be if the EU decided to revoke the visa-free rights of US citizens. Though unlikely, this would have major consequences.
First of all, if the EU no longer allowed US citizens to visit as tourists or on business without the need for a visa, it would have a major effect on tourism. With a plethora of US citizens visiting Europe each year and spending thousands of euros per trip, this figure would immediately drop if visas were imposed once more. Entire communities and tourist-based areas would lose a major source of their business, and the hospitality industry would certainly lose power on the whole. Then there would be the effect on business – with 10% of Americans’ trips to Europe being for business purposes, transatlantic business relationships would suffer tremendously. Currently, the EU and the USA have excellent arrangements in place to allow for trade, and this relationship would be instantly damaged if visas were required once again. Finally, the effect would be likely to multiply, as the USA would be far less inclined to maintain its Visa Waiver Program with EU countries. This would be devastating on both sides of the pond as European tourism is also a huge industry for the USA; it would mean going back to the days of incessant red tape and long waiting periods for getting visas.
So the EU is currently making up its mind as to whether or not to revoke the visa-free travel offered to US citizens. If the USA suddenly decide to allow Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania to qualify for its Visa Waiver Program, then this decision will no longer be necessary. However, even with the situation as it stands, it is very unlikely that the EU would be willing to do something that would cause so much peripheral damage. The USA and the European Union have a solid relationship, which incorporates excellent trade and business deals for both sides. They see eye to eye on many global concerns, and generally move towards the same cause. Also, at a time when the EU is probably about to lose one of its major member states, now is not the time for risky decisions; with the UK on its way out, the EU will surely be aiming to maintain the best relationships possible with everyone, with a view to not damage the economy even further.
As for the USA, it is important to remember that the decisions it makes with regard to its Visa Waiver Program always have safety and security as their main priorities. Their VWP has proved to be highly successful and beneficial to the country, which means it is a scheme that needs to be protected and maintained. With security being a particularly prominent concern recently, it is only natural that the USA wish to take all precautions possible. An automated screening process (the ESTA in this case) implicates a lot of trust, and so it is important that the countries that form part of the VWP have excellent track records.
As members of Visa Waiver Program member countries, we naturally want this to all go as smoothly as possible. Let’s not forget how beneficial the ESTA is for us when we want to travel to the USA. First of all, the online ESTA application process is phenomenally faster, easier and cheaper than applying for a visa; there are no in-person interviews involved, and instead of waiting weeks on end for a response, the ESTA approval status is sent to the applicant by email within 24 hours.
Once ESTA approved, travelers are then eligible to visit the USA as tourists, or on business, for periods of up to 90 days at a time (which is the same time period used in the EU for US visitors). The ESTA is valid for two years, which means much easier travel for frequent visitors. The online ESTA application takes around ten minutes or so, and requires very little from the applicant. There are a few important questions on the form, but, as we mentioned previously, they are simply to ensure safety and security wherever possible. The most important thing to have to hand when completing the ESTA application is a valid passport – if the traveler’s passport expires during the validity period of the ESTA (i.e. two years), the ESTA immediately becomes void.
Time will tell what happens between the EU and the USA with regard to visa-free travel, but we can be rest assured that it is in everybody’s best interest to keep these programs in place and actively encourage easy, low-cost travel between the continents.