Europeans Reconsidering Visa-Free Travel for Americans

Visa Waiver Program faces an uncertain future, though your summer vacation plans are almost certainly safe


It's over for you, Tom. ||| Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

First the bad news for those Americans who enjoy traveling to Europe without having to first apply for a visa: The European Parliament voted one week ago to discontinue visa-free travel for U.S. passport-holders unless Washington extends the Visa Waiver Program (which allows for reciprocal 90-day visa-free travel arrangements between America and 38 nations) to the five countries in the European Union who are still on the outside looking in: Poland, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus.

The good news: The European Parliament is a largely ceremonial body, stuffed with clowns, who have zero say in the matter.

But deepening political distrust on both sides of the Atlantic is chipping away at a system under which each year around 22 million foreigners enter the U.S. and an estimated 12 million Americans visit Europe. With overwhelming bipartisan approval at the end of 2015, the Obama administration removed from the VWP dual nationals from, and people who had traveled since March 2011 to, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. Those who have also traveled in that time period to Somalia, Libya and Yemen are similarly exempt from the exemption. If those seven countries look familiar, they were the ones targeted in the Trump administration's first executive-order travel ban, and all but Iraq remain in the pared-back follow-up.

The new travel ban has the potential to put much bigger dents into Visa Waiver. Why? Because it instructs "the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence" to conduct a thorough review on each country's level of information-sharing when it comes to their nationals setting foot on U.S. soil. A preliminary report on the new specs is due within 20 days of the E.O. going into effect, then:

the Secretary of State shall request that all foreign governments that do not supply such information regarding their nationals begin providing it within 50 days of notification. […]

[Then,] the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, shall submit to the President a list of countries recommended for inclusion in a Presidential proclamation that would prohibit the entry of appropriate categories of foreign nationals of countries that have not provided the information requested until they do so or until the Secretary of Homeland Security certifies that the country has an adequate plan to do so, or has adequately shared information through other means.

Basically, the whole shebang of visa-screening is under review, and all European countries are on notice that they better adapt very quickly to the new vetting regime. Given that Donald Trump campaigned and won in part on this issue, that he slams Europe's refugee policies and Islamic terrorism policies at every opportunity, and that even libertarian-leaning politicians will happily hack off whole limbs of Visa Waiver in moments of crisis, there is almost nothing to suggest any political impediment to tightening those particular screws. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks, "of all the things to worry about, [admitting refugees] is down the list quite a bit. Visa waivers are quite closer to the top."

The typical Islamic terrorist in Europe nowadays is a second-generation immigrant, often holding just the one passport from a VWP country. Those people, unless covered by the exceptions listed above, can enter the United States for 90 days without a visa. That seems extremely unlikely to remain the case throughout the Trump presidency, even given the many alterations the program has seen since 9/11.

So is your planned vacation this summer to London or Paris or Rome in jeopardy? Nah; the economic fallout to an all-out visa war would be too brutal for both sides, so whatever happens will likely happen slowly. But the uncertainty remains, tourism to the U.S. is showing very preliminary signs of decline, and the unwinding of the post-war neoliberal project will continue speeding up pre-existing Fortress America trends while ushering in new realities that we can only begin to guess at. Given the absence so far of visa-screening operational requirements from the Trump administration, much of the near-term future of rich-world travel remains in the dark.