Travel From Europe reopens its doors. Why is Romania not in the visa waiver program?
The Biden administration recent announcement that travel restrictions from Europe would be relaxed for vaccinated travelers was long overdue.
As transatlantic air travel is set to resume in earnest, the continued exclusion of some European NATO allies – Romania, in particular – from the visa waiver program remains a glaring omission requiring a quick fix. .
The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of approved countries to come to the United States visa-free for up to 90 days with a travel authorization valid for two years.
In return, the 39 participating member countries share information with the United States on serious criminals, terrorists and lost and stolen passports.
In addition to these obvious security dividends, the visa waiver program facilitates business travel and tourism between foreign countries and the United States, and further strengthens the transatlantic bond.
The experience of Europeans from Visa Waiver Program countries and non-participating countries wishing to travel to the United States, such as The Heritage Foundation wrote, is the difference between night and day:
The VWP allows citizens of member countries to come to the United States without a visa. Instead, they must complete an online application on the Electronic Travel Authorization System (ESTA), a concept similar to that of an electronic visa.
ESTA travel authorization is similar to the visa verification process, but does not include an interview at a U.S. consulate, making it much less time consuming.
Recently, the United States expanded its membership in the program, including the inclusion of Croatia earlier this year. Today, six European NATO allies remain outside the program: Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania and Turkey.
Romania is by far the most striking omission. Bilateral ties between the United States and Romania have strengthened in recent years, notably with the signing of defense and 5G cooperation agreements, the purchase of American equipment and frequent military exercises.
Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper the description of Romania as “the anchor of the security of the Black Sea” is correct.
However, on the visa waiver program, Romania remains outside, due to a visa refusal rate above 3% (10.14% in fiscal year 2020). Countries are required to have a visa denial rate of less than 3%. Romania’s visa overrun rate, however, is similar – and in some cases better – than countries already enrolled in the program.
Congress, for its part, has options to remedy Romania’s exclusion from the visa waiver program, including allowing the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the program, the latitude to invite countries to join with a slightly high visa denial rate, provided they simultaneously have a low visa overrun rate.
Congress could also assess other eligibility criteria taking into account other national security objectives, such as the defense spending of NATO members. (Romania meets both NATO spending criteria.)
Yet the final inclusion of a country in the visa waiver program, even after meeting all the criteria, is at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security and the President. Ultimately, how quickly Romania is included in the program may depend on the administration signaling that program expansion is a priority.
In the case of Romania, expanding the visa waiver program should be a priority. Romania is a valued ally of the United States investing in defense and continuing to seek ways to deepen the partnership with the United States.
Its exclusion from the visa waiver program leaves a false impression that Romania is a second-rate ally, a message that Romanians hoping to travel to the United States, who must navigate the visa process, can certainly attest to this.
Announcing Romania’s inclusion in the visa waiver program would go a long way to rectify this impression, helping to further cement bilateral relations, while improving US security. It’s a win-win situation for the United States and Romania, and it should be obvious to the Biden administration.
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