European Union and U.S. security chiefs on Thursday said they had agreed to pursue negotiations on a disputed U.S. visa waiver program that would allow Washington to keep talking to countries individually on some issues while dealing with Brussels on others.
The U.S. wants air marshals on flights and electronic travel authorization as part of a new visa waiver law that could also require EU nations to provide more data on passengers on trans-Atlantic flights — demands that have irked EU officials.
Washington also has been making bilateral deals with some EU nations — over the objections of EU officials who want to negotiate a visa waiver deal for the entire 27-nation bloc — which has caused tensions across the Atlantic and within Europe.
A statement issued after talks between Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and EU Justice, Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini and other high-level officials said discussions will follow a twin-track approach. Washington will negotiate both with the bloc and with government officials in each nation.
The common goal of EU and US representatives "is to achieve visa-free travel, in full compliance with applicable laws, between the member states of the EU and the U.S.A. as soon as possible," a joint statement said.
Matters that fall within national responsibilities will be discussed with national authorities, while those that fall within EU responsibilities will be discussed with EU authorities, the statement said.
"This is not new, I think it was the understanding we've had all along," Chertoff said at a news conference after the meeting.
He said Thursday's meeting helped "relieve what I think was perhaps a little bit of unnecessary stress over the proceedings over the last few weeks."
Frattini said expert-level talks would begin shortly.
"What I want to reaffirm is that our aim, (EU) presidency and Commission, is to have all the member states ... in the visa waiver program with the United States very soon," Frattini said.
On Wednesday, Chertoff signed bilateral agreements with Latvia and Estonia, and he is expected to sign deals soon with Hungary, Lithuania and Slovakia.
"We obviously want to move this process along as quickly as possible, but ... of course, have to do so carefully and with respect for our legal obligations," Chertoff said, adding that U.S. law requires qualification on a nation-by-nation basis. He said countries must meet certain standards and that some may be a far from doing so.
Frattini suggested before the meeting that the program could be widened to all 27 EU member states by October, but Chertoff's comments suggested otherwise.
"I believe that we will begin to see new visa waiver travelers perhaps as early as the end of this year from one or two countries. I think that's very good news," Chertoff said.
The joint statement also said the U.S. will share further details with the EU on an electronic system for travel authorization that will be applied "consistently" to all EU member states and will be coordinated with the EU's future system.
"We want to make sure that as the EU starts its system that we synchronize so we can work together," Chertoff said.