PM Mirek Topolánek on U.S. visit with visas, radar on the agenda

Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek leaves on a three-day working visit the United States on Monday. His meetings with US President George Bush and American top officials are expected to revolve around two outstanding issues in bilateral relations – the lifting of visa restrictions for Czechs travelling to the US and Czech participation in the US missile defence programme.

Mirek Topolánek
After years of intensive negotiations, Prague and Washington are about to take the first step leading to the abolition of visa requirements for Czech citizens travelling to the United States. On Tuesday Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and Interior Minister Ivan Langer will sign a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which will start the process of the Czech Republic’s admission to the US visa-waiver programme.

Under the conditions of the memorandum, the U.S. authorities will lift visa restrictions for Czech nationals in return for detailed information on each U.S.-bound traveller. These data, known as Passenger Name Record, include such sensitive information as phone numbers, date and place of birth, and credit card details. Instead of undergoing visa interviews at the U.S. embassy in Prague, travellers will in future be required to fill in an on-line form, known as Electronic Travel Authority, which will be reviewed by U.S. authorities. The memorandum also envisages a duty to place armed air marshals on board flights to the United States whenever requested by U.S. security. If all goes according to plan U.S. visa restrictions for Czech nationals could be lifted by August or September of this year.

The soon-to-be concluded agreement between the United States and the Czech Republic, as well as parallel bilateral talks with other new EU member states including Hungary and Estonia have been a source of much disappointment in Brussels. The United States would like to introduce these terms for all European travellers to America which is something the old EU member states strongly object to. The European Commission believes that the bilateral negotiations of several Central and Eastern European countries eager to be included in the US visa-waiver programme could jeopardize EU pressure on the United States to drop their requirements for such detailed passenger information.

Recent reports from Brussels suggest that EU opposition to these bilateral talks dwindled to some extent after the U.S. agreed that only limited passenger information will be transferred under the new system. In fact, one EU official said that the Czech – American memorandum could serve as a model for other EU countries. On the other hand the European Commission has also threatened to bring a lawsuit against any EU country which signs the memorandum.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek is scheduled to meet President George W. Bush for talks on the possible siting of a U.S. radar base in the Czech Republic as a part of the American anti-missile defence system. Agreement on this sensitive issue also seems to be close despite the fact that such a move remains highly unpopular in the Czech Republic. While critics link the two issues and claim that an American radar base on Czech territory is too high a price to pay for the lifting of visas, both Czech and American diplomats have repeatedly stressed that the issues are separate and that progress on the radar deal is not linked to the abolition of visas for Czech citizens.