VILNIUS - Lithuania and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding on Lithuania joining the visa waiver program in a major breakthrough to realizing the dream of visa-free travel to America.
The preliminary deal, signed by Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Audrius Bruzga and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in Washington on March 17 is one of the main steps required for lifting visa requirements necessary for Lithuanian travelers.
"We in Lithuania have a strong belief in values and advantages of a free society. The possibility of free travel is an important condition of such a society. It would be difficult to find better partners in strategic cooperation than Europe and the U.S. Therefore, our people should make use of all advantages of such partnership," Bruzga said after the ceremony.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry noted in its press release that the memorandum is "only the first step, butâ€¦a very important one."
Although the European Commission claimed that concluding any EU-U.S. deals on visa waiving is within the EU's competence, some newer EU member states are not willing to wait for the outcome of talks between Washington and Brussels.
The ministry underlined that the memorandum does not indicate a specific date for removing the visa requirement, but Lithuanian media reported that U.S. officials promised that visa-free regime may be applied to Lithuanian travelers by the end of this year.
"An expert delegation of the U.S. homeland security department plans to come to Vilnius in April," the ministry said. "The visit is expected to result in concrete methods and conditions of implementation of the principles listed in the memorandum in the bid of visa-free travel to the U.S."
Hungary and Slovakia signed the memorandums together with Lithuania, while Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic signed similar deals earlier this month.
Washington and Brussels are in the process of negotiations of the possibility to waive visas for all EU nations in exchange for new travel security measures' application. Measures would include armed air marshals on flights, electronic travel authorization and access to more data on passengers.
The negotiations have stalled, however, because the EU officials consider such requirements could violate air passengers' privacy.
EU leaders feel that signing of bilateral agreements on visa-free travel not only undermines the EU's negotiating powers, but also violate EU legislation in regards EU's exclusive competence to make the deal and current legislation on personal data protection.
An EU-U.S. agreement on passenger name records, which obliges airlines to provide U.S. authorities with a certain amount of personal data on trans-Atlantic travelers, was signed in June of 2007, but U.S. demands in bilateral agreements go far beyond this document.
Nevertheless, Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Fratttini on March 13 dismissed the memorandums as "political documents" that bear no real legal weight.
Chertoff partly confirmed that, saying that none of this concludes the issue.
"At the end, the standards have to be met. Some states are very close to meeting them and may very well meet them before the end of the year, but I can't guarantee you that every state will," he said on March 12.
New EU members are not equal in meeting the current visa waiver program's requirements.
Lithuanian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Oskaras Jusys said the requirement to the percentage of rejected visa applications under 10 percent was met last year, but the threshold was exceeded by holders of Lithuanian passports abroad.
He said that Lithuania's accession to the EU in 2004, the opening of legal labor markets in Western Europe and stable improvement of the economic situation has made America less attractive for employment and emigration.
During the past few years, the U.S. government has tended to depart from its original visa requirements, adding certain criteria with a political flavor. For instance, according to the comprehensive Immigration Reform Act established in 2006, countries that provide "material support" to multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan might qualify for the visa-waiving expansion program.
In 2007 Congress passed the Counter-Terrorism Partnership Act, providing for expanding of the visa waiver program for countries that cooperate with the U.S. on security and counterterrorism matters.
Lithuania has been supplying multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with its troops since 2003 and has repeatedly asserted its support to the US counter-terrorism efforts. Lithuania lifted the visa regime for U.S. citizens unilaterally in 1994.