OTTAWA—Canada and the European Union are racing towards an April 12 deadline to avoid triggering a process that could result in Canadian travellers having to obtain a visa to travel to 26 European countries.
It is part of an ongoing dispute in which the EU has pushed Canada to lift its requirement on travellers from its member countries, Romania and Bulgaria.
The issue has raised concerns that the dispute could adversely affect CETA, the mammoth Canada-EU free trade deal, which still has yet to be ratified.
The 28-member bloc says Canada’s visa violates the spirit of reciprocity, but the Immigration Department disagrees.
Representatives from Canada, the EU, and Bulgaria and Romania have met four times but no progress has been made, said one source familiar with the efforts but not authorized to discuss them publicly.
The deadline raises the possibility of igniting a nasty public spat in a year when Canada and the EU are celebrating 40 years of relations and hoping to finally ratify their landmark free trade deal.
A Romanian member of the European Parliament raised that possibility in January in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Immigration Minister John McCallum and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.
European lawmaker Sorin Moisa wrote that removing visas for Romanians and Bulgarians “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.”
The EU’s embassy in Ottawa declined comment.
Felix Corriveau, a spokesman for McCallum, said the government is working towards the April 12 deadline set out in the EU’s Visa Reciprocity Mechanism, which also affects the United States.
“Canadian officials in Ottawa and Brussels have and continue to be heavily engaged in a very positive, ongoing dialogue with Romania, Bulgaria and the European Commission on this issue,” Corriveau said in an emailed response to questions.
“Canada’s visa policy is not based on reciprocity. Rather, Canada must be satisfied that countries meet its criteria for a visa exemption.”
He said the policy tries to strike a balance between welcoming visitors to Canada and “protecting the health, safety and security of Canadians.”
Corriveau said visa policy is not part of any of Canada’s free trade agreements. “Decisions on whether or not visas are necessary do not relate to trade.”
In his letter, Moisa, a member of the European Parliament’s trade committee, disagrees.
“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 utmost clarity,” he writes.
When then-prime minister Stephen Harper hosted European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, they issued a joint statement affirming, “as soon as possible, visa-free travel between our two countries from all Canadian and EU citizens.”
Moisa said he expects the Trudeau government to honour that commitment.
If a visa were imposed on Canadian travellers it would affect only the 26 countries of the EU’s Schengen Area, while Britain and Ireland would be exempt.
Britain is currently involved in its own dispute with the EU and will hold a referendum in June on whether to leave the bloc.