The European Union would incur significant costs and inconvenience travellers if it reintroduced visas for US citizens, the bloc's executive warned Tuesday, amid a debate on whether the United States must be penalized for requiring Europeans to get visas.
Washington has yet to grant visa-free access to citizens from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, even though US nationals can travel to Europe without a visa.
"Visa reciprocity is a fundamental element of the EU's common visa policy," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said. "EU citizens rightly expect to travel without a visa to any third country whose citizens can enter [Europe's] Schengen area visa-free."
However, the European Commission stopped short Tuesday of recommending that the visa waiver for US citizens be suspended, underlining instead the adverse consequences of such a move and requesting input from EU member states and the European Parliament.
EU law requires "the political, economic and administrative consequences" of suspending a visa waiver programme to be taken into account, the commission noted.
The US has threatened to retaliate by requiring visas for travellers from all EU member states, which would generate some 2.5 billion euros (2.8 billion dollars) in extra costs for the bloc's citizens and companies, the commission estimated.
"The situation would very likely not improve for the five member states concerned and would worsen for all member states currently enjoying visa-free travel to the US," it wrote in a communication to the EU's member states and parliament.
The commission also predicted that EU consulates would be unable to process the estimated 10 million US visa applications that would be submitted per year, noting that "North America is the most important source of international travellers coming to the EU."
"Several member states would probably have to issue as many visas in the US as they do in the whole of the rest of the world," its communication says.
The commission on Tuesday also reviewed the visa situation in Canada and Brunei, both of which are falling short of visa reciprocity requirements too. In both cases, it found adverse effects if the visa waivers for the two countries were to be suspended.
Requiring visas for citizens from the US, Canada and Brunei is likely to discourage travel to Europe, resulting in millions of euros of losses for the EU tourism sector, the commission warned.
The 28-country bloc's external relations are also like to suffer a "substantial" impact, the commission found - just at a time when it is trying to finalize free trade agreements with the US and Canada.
The EU's member states and parliament are now expected to set out their positions by mid-July.