U.S. Signs Visa-Free Travel Agreement

ReutersChertoff and Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins in Riga on Wednesday.
TALLINN, Estonia -- The United States signed agreements Wednesday with Latvia and Estonia that will enable the Baltic nations to join the U.S. visa-waiver program later this year.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the signings were "the first major step forward in completing the process" of ensuring that all necessary security measures are met and citizens of the two countries can travel to the United States without a visa.

Joining the program is a long-cherished goal for Estonia and Latvia -- former Soviet republics that gained independence in 1991. But both are members of the European Union, and the agreements irk Brussels because the European Commission is trying to negotiate a visa-waiver pact for the entire 27-nation EU.

Chertoff played down claims that the issue had created tension within the EU and said the United States was being "mindful and respectful" toward Brussels.

Chertoff said the long-term goal was to establish a single set of standards for all countries and not discriminate between older and newer EU members.

The current program allows citizens from most West European countries to enter the United States without visas. It excludes, however, Greece, the Czech Republic, the three Baltic states and the EU's other East European nations, except for Slovenia. The United States signed a similar memorandum with Czech Republic earlier this year.

He said Estonians may be able to travel visa-free to the United States later this year.