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Politics Europe mulls visas for Canadians visiting Romania and Bulgaria

A passenger holds his Canadian passport before boarding a flight in Ottawa on Jan 23, 2007. A human rights lawyer is raising concern about the federal government's plan to strip Canadian passports of those suspected of travelling abroad to join extremist groups THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson

The Canadian Press

Immigration and business experts are trying to ease the concerns of Europe-bound Canadian travellers, as the European Commission decides this week whether it will bite back at Canada's visa requirements for Romanians and Bulgarians by reciprocating with similar rules.

The European Commission must decide by Tuesday whether to require visas from countries that have similar requirements in place for one or more European Union states – except for Britain and Ireland, which have exemptions from the 28-member bloc's visa policy. The talks come at a critical time, when Canada and the EU are working to build closer ties and ratify a historic free-trade deal.

However, experts doubt the visa requirement will actually come to fruition.

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Mary Jane Hiebert of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies said there is no need for Canadian travellers to panic, since a number of barriers stand in the way of the measure coming into force any time soon.

"If they [the European Commission] in fact would make that step on Tuesday, there are so many processes that need to be put in place before it would become mandated, so I would not worry about it at this point," Ms. Hiebert said.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges said the implications for the European tourism industry would be a deterrent to the measure, given the potential loss of revenue from Canadian travellers who probably wouldn't bother visiting countries where a visa is required.

"It's probably unlikely to actually happen," Ms. Desloges said. "Europe, of course, is such a popular tourist destination and with all of the problems that they've had with terrorism attacks in the last little while, their tourism industry will already be affected. … They'd only be punishing themselves."

Five EU members – Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Spain – were among the top 10 countries that Canadians visited in 2013, accounting for a total of more than $1-billion of in-country spending, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data.

Diplomatic relations are also at stake with the visa decision. Jason Langrish, executive director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business, said that even though the visa requirement is unlikely to come into effect, it still doesn't send a good message as the partners work to implement the massive Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement by early 2017.

"A visa [requirement] would be unfortunate, to say the least, when you're in the process of finalizing the most wide-ranging free-trade agreement in history and yet you could be imposing visas on tourists and travellers," Mr. Langrish said. "But I don't think it's going to get to that point."

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The visa requirement should come as no surprise to Canada. An official EU journal on April 12, 2014, noted the non-reciprocity action for Canada and the United States, which also requires visas for visitors from Poland, Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania.

Under European Commission rules, the body must proceed with the "delegated act" of imposing a retaliatory visa requirement for Canadians and Americans by Tuesday. The change won't come into place immediately, as the European Parliament or European Council will have four months to block the decision.

That will leave some time for Canada to consider European pressure to lift visa requirements on Romania and Bulgaria, something Calgary-based immigration lawyer Raj Sharma predicts will happen for the sake of the overall relationship.

"I think that the Europeans are kind of getting more than just annoyed. The Europeans are feeling a little bit like, 'Let's put everything into context here, right? You're [Canada] about to jeopardize serious, serious trade and our dignity,'" Mr. Sharma said.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister John McCallum's office said Ottawa and Brussels have been "heavily engaged" in ongoing dialogue with Romania, Bulgaria and the European Commission on the visa issue. However, she added, the government does not make visa policy decisions based on reciprocity.

Canada's visa requirement for Bulgarians and Romanians predates their joining the EU. The countries do not meet the federal government's criteria for visa-free travel, including migration issues, security of travel documents, public safety, border management and human rights.

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