Open Letter on visas for Romanian nationals entering Canada
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,
I am writing to you as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) elected in Romania, with regard to a long-standing issue embittering both Romanian-Canadian and more generally EU-Canada relations: visas for Romanians entering Canada. The time has now come to confront this matter head-on. The good news is that in 2016, this should be uncontroversial.
My interest in Canada goes far beyond this matter. As an MEP in the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament, I am the spokesman of my group (the Socialists and Democrats – S&D) for the EU-Canada free trade agreement (CETA). In that capacity, I have worked hard to bolster our chances to save this treaty by making it fairer and more legitimate for both European and Canadian citizens, addressing the toxic investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) issue.
I have worked with Chrystia Freeland, your excellent Trade Minister, with your Chief Negotiator, with successive Canadian Ambassadors and other senior officials in Ottawa or Brussels. They can testify that I have never linked or conditioned in any way my CETA work on the Romanian visa issue. On the contrary, I have always made the point that we must all be mindful of the bigger picture. I do believe CETA is one of the projects that the Western world needs in order to shape its own economic future, with a strong Atlantic relationship being vital for that goal. On the bilateral front, I cannot forget that Canada was the first allied nation to ratify Romania’s NATO’s accession, nor ignore that these very days, for example, joint military exercises with Canadian troops are taking place in Romania. Nor would it have been fair towards my non-Romanian colleagues in the S&D in Parliament to follow a separate agenda using my leading role on CETA as an un-transparent platform for other issues. Not creating the link, on the other hand, did not spare me the political cost of appearing not to address a situation which is widely and rightly perceived as unfair. I am doing just that today, in the frankest and most transparent way.
What I think my work with your officials gives me is the moral credit of someone who, while defending European interests to the best of his abilities, has shown loyalty to a vital common cause and has been empathetic, open and supportive towards Canada and its citizens. Such moral credit allows me to suggest that you take a personal look at this embarrassing historic leftover.
Romania is subjected to administrative screening on some 40 political and technical criteria including human rights, political stability, fighting corruption, border management. It is doing well or very well on the overwhelming majority of those. But the point is that the screening itself is disproportionate for an EU Member State, that many of its indicators can lead to infinite speculation about what is “objective” reality when measured against unilateral and often unclear standards. Claims of objectivity can be easily challenged if one takes a look at the EU Anti-Corruption Report or the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, which both show that Romania does better not only than other new, but also than older or even founding EU Member States in very important areas included in the Canadian screening process. Nevertheless, these EU Member States have for long been visa-exempt.
Moreover, there is absolutely no comparison if we are to be honest and “objective” between Romania’s performance on any indicator pertaining to corruption and governance, and that of Mexico, for which the political decision to lift the visas has already been made.
Probably the most unjust thing about Canadian screening is that it follows already entrenched prejudices in a completely unnecessary way. For example, Romania’s fight against corruption. Beyond any report or index, if you look without preconceived ideas you will see that Romania transformed itself in a truly amazing way during these past years, which is unfortunately not exactly a regional trend. You may also note that Romania is one of the very few countries in Europe that did not send a populist or extremist party to the European Parliament, and thatits economy is growing at one of the fastest rates in Europe.
I have noted in the Canadian debate a lot of confusion between the right to free movement, the right to work, and migration issues, all «nicely» mixed up with the Brexit debate. It may therefore be worthwhile reminding Canadians that Romanians have been traveling visa -free in Europe since January 2002, and can travel within the EU on the basis of solely their ID card since 1 January 2007, when Romania joined the EU. This should not be confused with the right to work: some member states, including the UK, excluded Romanians from their labour market for seven years, until 1 January 2014. In January 2014 some British politicians made all of us smile by physically waiting in airports for a wave of Romanians that never came. This emphasises how the right to travel is different from the right to work, and that removing visas would only facilitate the former, and not the latter, which follows a different legal basis and economic logic. Furthermore, as a consequence of the “Czech issue” of 2009-2013, Canada has adapted its legislation so as to prevent abuse both on asylum applications and border crossing. Last year, for example, your customs officials denied entry to Canada to no less than 7.055 foreigners from visa-waiver countries. This relatively large number clearly shows that incidents and abuses can happen, but also that Canada has the means to tackle them. In the case of Romanians, for fear of isolated incidents you are punishing an entire nation in terms of status, and the overwhelming majority of travellers to Canada who would definitely be legitimate. That doesn’t seem fair.
Now let us take a look at the Romanian visa issue in the context of EU-Canada relations.
Firstly, while I have never made the CETA- visa link myself, the EU-Canada Summit that closed the CETA negotiations in September 2014 did it with outmost clarity: “we commit to ensure, as soon as possible, visa-free travel between our countries for all Canadian and EU citizens, also so that they will benefit fully from the new trade and economic opportunities between Canada and the EU”. If even the previous government committed to visa-free travel for all EU citizens (actually more than once), one can only expect the Trudeau government to naturally move on this quickly and effortlessly.
Secondly, chances are high that the Council of Ministers of the EU will decide that CETA is a mixed agreement. This means that all EU member state Parliaments will have to give their blessing to the agreement.
But the most sensitive situation of all is this: if by April Canada (among very few others) does not end the situation of “non-reciprocity”, the European Commission is legally bound to issue what we call in EU talk a “delegated act” imposing visas on Canadians entering any EU country, for a period of 12 months. The Regulation does not leave the Commission any margin of manoeuvre: “the Commission shall adopt a delegated act…“. I noted some confusion in Canada about the nature of an EU delegated act: the truth is that it does not need to be voted by the Council and the European Parliament in order to come into effect: it always comes into effect unless rejected by either of the two legislators, by mobilising a qualified majority in the case of the Council and an absolute majority in that of the European Parliament. In other words, a majority will not be needed to approve the act, but to object to it if either institution takes that initiative. That difference is very significant for reasons I do not need to spell out. Whether or not this system of addressing “non-reciprocity” based on escalation is optimal and proportionate when it comes to strategic partners I don’t know, but for the moment it is EU law, and the Commission is an upholder of rule of law par excellence. It is difficult to anticipate what exactly will happen, but you can imagine how delicate this is going to be…
Therefore, to conclude, removing visas for Romanians (and Bulgarians) this year would be just, would not bring any risks for Canada, would remove some of the real political risks to CETA’s adoption, and would spare both the EU and Canada an embarrassing legal and political row. It would also be a natural thing to do – at long last – with regard to a friend and ally, and a great confirmation of the new Trudeau era of vision, fairness, decency and openness.
I will be in Ottawa next week for an official trade mission, and will also take the opportunity to discuss these matters with your Immigration Minister. I hope to hear good news from you or your Government on this matter soon.
Publicat de Sorin Moisă