Some member states still don’t enjoy visa-free travel to the US, but they themselves are partly to blame. A more shocking asymmetry is the ESTA fee levied on Europeans at US borders.
While Americans face no specific requirements and no entry costs to visit the EU, Europeans travelling to the US have either to get a costly tourist visa – for citizens of Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania – or to pay the $14 Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA) fee instituted in 2010. However, this striking asymmetry is only in part due to a lack of resolve or solidarity among Europeans.
The four member states that are still not part of the visa-waiver program (VWP) had visa refusal rates and/or overstaying visa rates that were deemed too high by the US to allow admission (Greece, on the other hand, was admitted in spring 2010). Cyprus did not even have biometric passports until the end of 2010. And Washington insisted that Romania and Bulgaria get into the Schengen Area to qualify for the VWP, a somewhat puzzling condition, since requirements for the former are much more stringent than for the latter, non-Schengen European countries such as Ireland and the UK are part of the VWP, and Schengen countries such as Poland are not. More generally, the legacy of past bilateral deals and resulting asymmetry between the US and the EU, as well as the fear of terrorism on the American side, all contribute to the problem.
There is no justification, however, for the ESTA fee levied on European visitors, which, ironically, is meant to fund the promotion of tourism in the US. Although modest – at least for now – it is objectionable in principle and because no similar fee for Americans exists on the EU side. Several members of the European Parliament have protested about this situation and called for a European ESTA, with or without a fee. However, member states are reluctant in principle to take such a step, and it is difficult to see not only how it would work when visitors cross European borders, but also who would collect and receive the money. Europeans should therefore join forces to ask Washington to drop the ESTA fee altogether for the sake of smooth transatlantic mobility.