EU visa standoff strains allies Canada needs to pass trade deal

Could Canadians soon require a visa to travel to the European Union? It may sound ridiculous, but unless Canada's visa requirements are dropped for Romanians and Bulgarians by April 12, the EU's obligated to reciprocate. The escalating visa tensions come as Canada lobbies for enough support to ratify the Canada-EU trade deal.

If Canada won't lift visa requirement for Romanians, Bulgarians by April 12, EU obligated to reciprocate

Immigration Minister John McCallum's officials are still unwilling to lift visa requirements on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens. Now the European Union is threatening to retaliate on behalf of its fellow member states, potentially requiring Canadians to have a visa in order to visit Europe. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Could Canadians soon require a visa to travel to the European Union?

It may sound ridiculous, but unless Canada's visa requirements are dropped for Romanians and Bulgarians by April 12, the European Union is required to reciprocate with visa requirements of its own.

Even if brinkmanship subsides and a visa war is averted, the hard feelings come at a bad time for Canada, as it tries to rally votes needed to ratify its trade deal later this year.

Next Tuesday in Strasbourg, France, the EU's College of Commissioners — roughly equivalent to its executive, or cabinet, representing all 28 member states — is expected to proceed with a "delegated act," imposing a visa requirement for Canadians and Americans visiting Europe.

The Europeans believe they are obligated to reciprocate when unwarranted visas are imposed on citizens of member countries. The EU set April 12 as the deadline for all countries to comply with a visa reciprocity mechanism adopted in 2014. 

That means Canada needs to lift its visa requirement for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens by Tuesday.

The U.S. currently requires visas for citizens from five EU member states and is part of the same dispute.

The issue has dragged on for years, originating with fears that as some central and eastern European countries with vulnerable migrant populations, such as the Roma, joined the EU, too many could overstay visits in North America or claim asylum.

Canada 'patronizing'

An earlier dispute between Canada and the Czech Republic was resolved in 2013. But for Romanians and Bulgarians, visa requirements remain in place.

"Canada's visa policy is not based on reciprocity. Rather, Canada must be satisfied that countries meet its criteria for a visa exemption," Immigration department spokesman Felix Corriveau wrote in an email to CBC News.

The previous Conservative government led by Stephen Harper spoke of wanting to resolve the issue soon. Once implemented, Canada's new electronic travel authorization will make it easier for Romanians who have held a valid Canadian visa in the last 10 years to travel to Canada again, for example.

When negotiations wrapped for the Canada-EU trade agreement two years ago, a solution seemed imminent.

But a meeting Wednesday between Canadian and European officials found the two sides still disagreeing. 

"The outcome was disappointing," Sorin Moisa, a Romanian member of the European Parliament told CBC News, describing the behaviour of the Canadian side as unacceptable, undignified and patronizing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mandate letter to his International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland (left), instructs her to oversee the ratification of the Canada-EU free trade deal. But efforts to ensure the deal is ratified on the European side aren't helped by ongoing tensions over visa requirements. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Rather than bridging gaps, Moisa said Canada was "super-evasive, aggressive and arrogant," adding to the criteria required for lifting its visa in unfair ways that aren't transparent and can't be challenged in court.

He accused Canada of trying to do "social-political engineering," demanding things of Romania it does not require from other countries, applying criteria that "would not hold water."

"This has to stop," he told CBC.

Failing to back its fellow states on the visa issue would be a "huge continental embarrassment" and a failure of EU solidarity, Moisa said.

Travel unaffected for now

Canadian spokesman Corriveau says officials remain "heavily engaged in a very positive, ongoing dialogue," and are committed to extending visa-free travel as soon as possible.

Canadian travellers don't have anything to fear as far as their spring or summer travel plans are concerned. Even if nothing is resolved by the deadline, nothing would take effect immediately.

Over the next six months, the EU commission could be overruled by majority votes at either the European Council (representing foreign ministers from 28 member states) or the elected members of the European Parliament in Brussels.

If such a vote to object does not pass, new rules would take effect inside a 90-day window after that, pushing any new visa requirements to late 2016 or early 2017.

The European Council in particular is unlikely to allow the visa retaliation to disrupt both personal and business travel between North America and Europe. The implications for tourism and trade would be significant.

That doesn't mean there isn't a cost to Canada of letting the dispute drag on.

Demonstrators rallied in Berlin last October to oppose the European Union's trade deals with both Canada and the U.S. A longstanding dispute over visa requirements for some European citizens now threatens to impose visa requirements on North Americans visiting Europe, if a compromise is not reached. (Gregor Fischer/dpa via The Associated Press)

CETA ratification uncertain

The brinkmanship over visa rules comes as Canada needs allies, not enemies — with a ratification vote looming on the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) later this year or early in 2017.

CETA may need to be ratified also in the individual legislatures of EU member states.

Far from assured, Canada's trade deal has been caught up in European protests opposing ongoing trade talks with the U.S.

Earlier this year, Canada compromised on CETA's contentious investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, in an effort to overcome European opponents of the deal.

Moisa, a member of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) in Brussels, has been a key voice speaking out in favour of CETA as his party's rapporteur.

S&D is a large voting bloc in the Brussels parliament, with MEPs from all member states. It's a crucial swing vote for ratifying CETA.

Moisa was in Ottawa last month with a trade delegation. He met with Immigration Minister John McCallum and had been optimistic resolution was possible.

He said he's tried not to link the trade deal to the visa issue, but others have. He's increasingly frustrated and feels he may be forced to resign as CETA rapporteur.

"I cannot show up in Romania again," he said, if it's not dealt with.

Just as Canada is using its sovereign rights to continue to impose visas, he said Romanian MEPs and other sympathetic parliamentarians can choose to use their sovereign power to not ratify CETA.

Canada's behaviour is toxic, he said. And S&D is "known for its spirit of solidarity."