If you are planning to travel to Europe this summer .... your trip may be harder than you thought. You have the US Congress to thank.
Readers of this blog may recall that in response to the catastrophic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino Congress enacted ... a non-sequitur. Despite the fact that it had absolutely nothing to do with either attack, Congress concluded that it ought to amend the Visa Waiver Program. The VWP, allows citizens from certain countries (mostly our friends in Europe, but also Asian nations like Japan and Taiwan) to travel to the United States without having to go to the embassy for a formal interview. Instead, they provide electronic data to the US in advance of travel that allows for their screening against watchlists and databases held by the US government.
The program is the very definition of a win-win. Travellers get an easier time of travel. The US government gets an opportunity to prescreen the travellers against our watchlists. And the benefits of visa-free travel to the United States are so great that in order to secure access our allies and friends will also agree to share information from some of their own intelligence and law enforcement data bases, further enhancing American security.
Nonetheless, even though the VWP had no connection to either the Paris or San Bernadino attacks (the San Bernadino attackers came to the US through the traditional visa process), in December of 2015, Congress decided to amend the VWP as part of the omnibus bill. Under the amendments citizens of VWP countries who are dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan must now go through the cumbersome visa interview process. So, too, must anyone anyone who has visited these four countries within the last five years. In other words, if you are an Iranian who fled the country and you are now a citizen of France as well, you are excluded from the VWP. So too are European businessmen who have travelled to Iraq to help rebuild the country. Ditto for aid workers who have gone to Sudan to help alleviate suffering there. The amendments are, frankly, utter nonsense. They add little or nothing to security and they impose a significant cost on the citizens of friendly nations.
And now, they are going to harm Americans as well.
The VWP program is reciprocal. Just as Europeans have visa-free access to the United States, Americans are likewise allowed to travel without a visa to Europe. This is the law that makes it possible for you to plan to be on a business trip to Paris next week; or take a vacation to Rome for Easter, without the need for a stop at the French or Italian embassy first.
That's likely to change. European law requires that they respond (or, if you prefer, retaliate) and eliminate reciprocity for third-countries that limit visa-free travel for Europeans. Exactly how the Europeans might respond is, of course, subject to some negotiation and uncertainty. But according to this letter from the Deputy Chief of Mission of the EU Delegation to the United States the EU law requires that "if by April 2016 [the US has] not lifted the visa requirement for all EU citizens, the [European] Commission shall adopt an act temporarily suspending the visa waiver for 12 months for all citizens of [the US]." That decision must, in turn, be approved by the European Parliament -- which is not a hot-bed of pro-American sentiment.
So there you have it. Thinking of going to Europe this summer? Better plan on getting in line and getting a visa. And while your waiting in that intermible line, be sure and thank those who put you there -- members of the US Congress.