EU gives Czechs moderate support on Canadian visa issue

If Canada does not abolish visas for Czech citizen by the end of the year, Brussels might retaliate by introducing visas for Canadian diplomats travelling to the EU. That’s the promise Czechs received on Monday after an informal meeting of EU interior ministers. Ottawa re-introduced visas for Czech citizens in July due to an increasing numbers of Czech Romanies seeking asylum in Canada and ever since the Czech authorities have been pushing to get the decision reversed. But some say the Czech Republic should deal with the problems that are making Czechs leave the country in the first place.

The European Union has given the Czech Republic moderate backing in its visa dispute with Canada. At an informal lunch of EU interior ministers in Brussels on Monday, European Commissioner Jacques Barrot said that if Canada does not “make any progress” on the visa issue by the end of the year, the European Commission might consider introducing visas for Canadian diplomats travelling to the European Union. The head of the Asylum and Migration Department of the Czech Interior Ministry, Tomáš Haišman, was a member of the Czech delegation.

Jacques Barrot (right) at a press conference in Brussels, photo: CTK
“Mr Barrot said that if Canada does not change anything by the end of this year, the European Commission will start discussing effective instruments to alter the present situation. I understand that Canada has now some three months to rethink its decision and try to find a approach to Czech-Canadian relations.”

The pledge of putting visas in place for EU-bound Canadian diplomats is a political tool but many doubt its actual effectiveness. Czech Deputy Interior Minister Lenka Ptáčková-Melicharová told reporters after Monday’s meeting that some EU countries had proposed harsher measures be taken, including economic ones. Mr Haišman says however that Commissioner Barrot only mentioned diplomatic means of applying pressure so as to avoid a “visa war” with Canada.

“Look, visas for diplomats were mentioned by Mr Barrot and it’s a question of adequacy from the point of view of the European Commission as the responsible body for visa policy of EU members states towards third countries.”

Ottawa re-introduced visas for Czech nationals in July this year over an increasing number of Czechs seeking asylum in that country. The vast majority of them were members of the Czech Republic’s Romany minority who say they left because they faced frequent racial discrimination in the country. The Czech government is trying to make progress on the visa issue via diplomatic channels. But many in the country think that more should be done to tackle the persisting problem of discrimination against Romanies in the first place. Karel Novák is the head of social integration programmes of the Czech NGO, People in Need.

“We can generally say that the situation is improving in some respects, particularly on the local level, but I don’t think that we have seen any major progress as such. That’s also due to the fact that various integration programmes have a certain momentum and it takes some time before they kick in. The problem is that this topic was neglected for many years and we can’t expect everything to change in the space of several months or a year.”

Mr Novák says that the interior ministry has done a good job curbing neo-Nazi violence against the Romany community but that many middle-class Czech Romanies would leave the country no matter what. The coming months will show whether the progress made will prompt Canada to rethink their visa policy towards the Czech Republic. If not, the Czech authorities may ask the EU to deliver on its promise and implement a joint EU visa policy towards Canada.