On Friday, March 3, a news story emerged that turned the heads of America’s Francophiles and international travelers: The European Parliament voted to impose visa restrictions on American travelers, making travel to Europe much more difficult. Or so it seemed.
“European Parliament votes to end visa-free travel for Americans,” the Independent wrote. “This Might Spell Trouble For Americans Traveling To Europe,” Refinery 29 said. “Wait, Do I Need a Visa to Visit Europe Now?” TIME asked.
While these headlines seemed to indicate an inevitable restriction being placed on American travelers, the European Parliament’s vote was in actuality a “non-binding resolution.” In other words, it was more a political statement aimed at rattling the US than it was a definite change in policy.
What the European Parliament did vote on was whether or not to urge the European Commission, a different and more powerful body, to impose visa restrictions on the US within the next two months. In response to the vote, the European Commission has said that it will try to find a diplomatic solution rather than to require Americans to get visas to come to Europe.
The conflict that sparked the European Parliament’s vote dates back to a controversy first unveiled three years ago.
In 2014 the Commission discovered that the US was requiring citizens from five Eastern European countries — Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania — to get visas to come to the United States, despite the fact that American citizens can travel freely to those countries without visas.
This is a violation of the European Union’s (EU) visa reciprocity program, which allows US citizens to travel within all EU countries without a visa for up to 90 days. However, the program must be reciprocal, thus giving all EU citizens those same travel privileges when they want to visit the US. By not allowing citizens of the five Eastern European countries (all of which are members of the EU) to visit the US without visas, the US is not holding up its end of the agreement.
Since 2014, the European Commission has tried to work with the US to remove visa restrictions for these five countries, but to no avail. Representatives of the European Commission and the US will meet on June 15 to further discuss the US policy.
The likelihood that the European Commission actually restricts American travel is quite low, for several reasons.
First, the US represents a major tourist market for the European Union, especially as terrorist attacks have already put a strain on travel to Europe. While traditional tourist countries like France and Germany have struggled to bring in visitors in recent years, it is ironically places like Bulgaria and Croatia (two of the countries whose citizens can’t come to the US without a visa) that have seen a surge in tourism.
In 2016, more than 12 million Americans visited Europe, according to the U.S. International Air Passenger Statistics Report. Total arrivals (which includes people who make multiple visits in one year) surpassed 27 million, an 8% increase over 2015.
Second, as CNN reports, threatening visa requirements is a tactic the European Parliament has used before, though, admittedly, with no real muscle. Along with the United States, Canada, Japan, Brunei, and Australia were also warned by European Parliament in 2014 when it was revealed that they too restricted members of these five countries from entering without a visa. Last spring, the offending countries missed a reforms deadline and were met with no repercussions.
In a show of strength in 2015, European Parliament threatened to require Canadians to get visas to visit Europe, in response to Canada’s restricted travel for Bulgarians and Romanians. Canada has since announced it will remove visa requirements by the end of 2017. All other countries except the US have also since rescinded those restrictions.
And finally, the European Parliament most likely doesn’t want to wage a visa war against an increasingly unpredictable US administration headed by Donald Trump. The Trump administration has already released two controversial executive orders on immigration, and might not cower easily to visa restrictions.
Americans, for now, can and should still travel to France, but if relations between the US and European countries other than the UK continue to deteriorate, then it might be time to consider rescheduling your summer trip.
We hear Cuba is nice.