Czechs a step closer to visa-free relations with the US

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This week was without question an important one for US-Czech relations. The reason? On Wednesday both houses of the US Congress agreed on changing US legislation to allow potential exceptions within the country's visa waiver programme. Under the proposed changes, it is thought Czechs could begin travelling visa-free to the US in two years time. Initial reports were even more optimistic, citing a one year timeframe. But there the Czech Foreign Ministry has expressed caution, saying such a timetable was probably unrealistic.

A little earlier I spoke to Zuzana Opletalova, the spokeswoman for the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

"The most important fact for us is that the US Congress is discussing the question of visas and changes in the US visa waiver programme. It is a big breakthrough compared to the situation a year ago. At the same time, we have to say that some reports in the media that visas would be cancelled in one year were probably too optimistic. It will take more than that because there are many conditions which have to be fulfilled."

Many of those pertain to the US's own security - the country for instance is planning to introduce an electronic identification system that will apply for all visa-waived countries, and such changes take time. But Czechs can take heart: they already meet one major requirement. Under the US visa waiver programme until now, countries were - without exception - required to meet a threshold of no more than 3 percent of their visa applications rejected, an insurmountable hurdle. Under the changes agreed, there could now be exceptions for countries posting a maximum of 10 percent visa applications rejected annually. The Czech Republic, in past years, has seen around 9 percent of its applications turned down, which would put the country just within range. But even there the Foreign Ministry stresses matters need to be kept in perspective. Zuzana Opletalova again:

"Even the condition of 10 percent refused applications could be a problem. We now have 9 percent but it could change, and we could have more than 10 percent like Poland or Slovakia. So, it could be a problem: we can not influence decisions of the US Embassy and it can change."

Still, for now many observers say Czechs can be fairly optimistic. The changes proposed by the US - part of broader legislation on security - have already been passed in the Senate and will now come up in the House of Representatives. If the bill passes there, it will then need to be signed by George W Bush, a president who has said he understands the Czechs dislike of visas to the US.

All the same, not everyone can be happy: besides Slovenia, which already enjoys visa-free relations with the United States, only one other new EU country, Estonia, could currently meet the 10 percent threshold. And in Poland, a strong US-ally where the number of rejected applications is double, diplomatic circles have reportedly already expressed bitterness and disappointment.