President Miloš Zeman says the European Union will put pressure on Canada to lift visas for Czech citizens, reintroduced in 2009 following a rise in the number of Roma people seeking asylum. Mr Zeman made the comments in a speech to members of the Czech Republic’s permanent representation to the European Union, after meeting European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
There’s been little movement on the Canadian visa issue but on Thursday President Zeman hinted at the possibility of a breakthrough. Speaking to Czech diplomats in Brussels the morning after dining with EU President José Manuel Barroso he said Mr Barroso had promised that the EU would exert pressure on the Canadian government to lift visas for Czechs. Mr Zeman told his audience he had stressed to the President of the Commission that freedom to travel was a fundamental human right and that imposing visas infringed that right.
Canadian visas have for several years been a thorn in the side of Czech diplomacy. Canadians now enjoy visa-free travel to any country in the Schengen Area, which includes the Czech Republic. For a brief period starting in 2007 the same was true for all citizens of Schengen countries wishing to visit Canada, and for almost all of them it’s still true today; whether you’re Spanish or Swedish, Slovak or Swiss, you can enter Canada as a tourist on your passport and stay there legally for six months.
Except, that is, for Czechs. In July 2009, alarmed at the number of Roma asylum seekers from the Czech Republic arriving in Canada, Ottawa suddenly reintroduced visas for Czech citizens. Now, Czechs aged 18-35 must apply for a tourist visa at the Canadian Embassy in Prague; the rest have to make an arduous trip to the embassy in Vienna. The number of Czechs visiting Canada – a country with a large Czech émigré community and lots of people going back and forth – has fallen by one third.
The European Commission has described the re-imposition of visas for Czechs as ‘highly regrettable’ and has appealed to Ottawa to lift them as soon as possible. Canada, however, has said it must first be assured the numbers of asylum seekers would not rise as a consequence. Relations between white Czechs and Romanies have if anything worsened since 2009; it’s hard to say with any confidence that some Roma wouldn’t seize the chance to join their relatives in Canada if the opportunity presented itself.
Mr Zeman, a moderate euro-federalist who began his presidency by flying the EU flag over Prague Castle, also aimed a few barbs at his eurosceptic predecessor Václav Klaus, saying he didn’t consider those Czechs who’d left to seek work in other EU countries as ‘a foreign body’. He also said Czech officials who go to work in EU institutions must on one hand be neutral, but shouldn’t on the other totally cut themselves off from their home countries. The expression ‘Czech national interests’ was not, said President Zeman, an empty phrase.
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