At least three recent newcomers to the European Union will opt this week for agreements with Washington on visa-free travel, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday.
He did not identify the three, but other officials said they are Slovakia, Hungary and Lithuania. They will join the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia, which have already signed preliminary deals on visa-free travel with Washington.
The six joined the EU in 2004. Their push for no-visa deals has irked the European Commission, which says it must negotiate travel accords on behalf of the entire 27-nation EU. But its failure to do so has exhausted the patience of eastern EU capitals.
The first travelers from the three countries could enter the U.S. without visas before the end of the year, Chertoff told a weekend conference of the German Marshall Fund of the United States on trans-Atlantic security issues.
His address capped a weeklong trip through Europe during which Chertoff and EU officials agreed to start a new round of talks over Washington's demands that EU nations meet new travel security measures in exchange for visa-free entry into America.
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 upset EU officials.
Washington's readiness to proceed with bilateral deals at the same time has caused some trans-Atlantic tensions. Chertoff has said U.S. laws requires bilateral agreements because countries do not meet security standards to the same degree.
He dismissed accusation by some EU officials that Washington's requirements violate the privacy of air passengers.
"We must beat back those people who argue that any time we collect a little information or any time we place a secure document requirement in the law, it is somehow the end of civil liberties," he said.
"We need to engage that and to make the point that it actually enhances civil liberties."