Estonia, Latvia to sign US travel deals amid EU concerns

Tue Mar 11, 11:45 AM ET

Estonia and Latvia will sign deals on Wednesday aimed at securing citizens visa-free travel to the United States, officials said, just ahead of an EU-US meeting on the controversial issue.

US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff will visit the Estonian capital to sign the deal with Interior Minister Juri Pihl, ministry spokeswoman Kristina Leer said Tuesday.

Chertoff will also sign a similar deal in Riga the same day, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers told reporters.

The visa exemptions are expected to take effect before the end of the year after technical details are worked out, Zatlers said.

The so-called memorandums of understanding on travel security arrangements are aimed at winning the countries entry into the US visa waiver programme.

Without the waiver -- currently only enjoyed by 15 of the 27 EU nations -- citizens are required to obtain visas even for a short stay in the US.

Estonia and Latvia, both former Soviet republics that have become loyal US allies, have opted to follow the Czech Republic's example in signing bilateral travel agreements with the United States.

A Czech-US accord on security measures for flights, signed in Washington last month, has angered the European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of EU nations as a whole and is guardian of the bloc's treaties.

The commission considered the Czech decision to go it alone undercut its bargaining power, and feared it would open the floodgates to other nations wanting to follow suit -- most of them newer EU members from central Europe.

But Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, on a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, said that Baltic state had been "pursuing this for years" and expressed surprise at the commission's reaction.

"It's not as if we or the other countries have done anything that no one knows about. No one seemed to care during this process," he said.

The issue is set to top the agenda of an EU-US justice meeting in Slovenia Thursday when the overall issue of visa-free travel and air security will be on the agenda, with Chertoff set to attend.

The Estonian and Latvian moves come despite a commission call to wait until a broader agreement on data exchanges, covering all 27 EU member states, is settled with the United States.

"We should now have a standstill until the moment when we can hope to have an agreement with the United States on March 13," a justice affairs spokesman reiterated Tuesday.

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Octobr 17, 2008 - President Bush Discusses the Visa Waiver Program
Office of the Press Secretary/ White House News

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. (Applause.) Please be seated, thank you. Welcome to the White House. I'm pleased to stand with the representatives of seven countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea -- that have met the requirements to be admitted to the United States Visa Waiver Program. Soon the citizens of these nations will be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa. I congratulate these close friends and allies on this achievement, and I thank you for joining us here.

I also thank Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of the Homeland -- Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for working hard to make sure this day has finally arrived. Appreciate other members of the administration here and members of the Diplomatic Corps.

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