New agreement paves way for visa-free travel to US for Czech citizens

Michael Chertoff, Mirek Topolánek, Ivan Langer, photo: CTK

“The fulfillment of a dream for a generation of Czechs” is how Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek described the signing on Tuesday of a document that paves the way for Czechs to visit the United States without a visa. However, Czech citizens will have to provide detailed information to US officials prior to travelling, and Prague’s go-it-alone approach to visa negotiations has ruffled feathers in Brussels.

Michael Chertoff,  Mirek Topolánek,  Ivan Langer,  photo: CTK
On Tuesday Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer, in Washington as part of a Czech government delegation, signed a memorandum of understanding that is a first step towards the Czech Republic being included in the US Visa Waiver Programme. Prague has been pushing for visa-free travel to the States for many years, and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, who also attended the signing ceremony, went so far as to compare the breakthrough to his country joining NATO and the European Union.

For his part, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who signed the memorandum on behalf of the American government, called it a milestone. He said the US hoped to welcome the first Czechs without visas in October or November of this year.

Before Czechs travel to the United States they will have to file personal data with the US authorities via the internet as part of the Electronic Travel Authorization system. Czech travellers will also come under the US-Visit immigration and border system, a database (including fingerprints) of foreigners present in the United States at any time.

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff praised the Czech Republic as a pioneer in becoming the first European Union state to sign up for the Americans’ new, stricter form of visa-free relations. However, the EU may well regard Prague as a little too pioneering in this respect.

Photo: European Commission
The European Commission has been angered by the Czech Republic’s negotiation of a bilateral agreement with Washington; in particular Brussels has been concerned that the memorandum might include a promise to provide sensitive personal data which went beyond EU policy. The final form of the memorandum was reportedly toned down after objections from the EU, though its officials are now expected to examine in detail what exactly Prague has signed.

Czech Interior Minister Langer rejected Brussels’ complaints on Tuesday, saying the Czech Republic had gone it alone after waiting a “bloody long time” for solidarity which never arrived.