OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

Who says there is no discrimination? Sure enough, there are two kinds of countries – those that have been designated by the US Secretary of State as «program countries» and the rest. Program? What program? It’s the Visa Waiver Program, stupid, the VWP that allows citizens of specific countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to three months without having to obtain a visa. Washington regards such countries as high-income, developed economies. As of December 3, 2008, 29 European countries were designated as VWP participants. But Greece was not among them. If that is not a fact that should greatly embarrass the Greek government in general and Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis in particular, then what is? But wait. There is worse: In recent months, visa-free travel to the USA has already threatened to expose European Union disunity, now at a critical point as the Czech Republic took over the EU presidency this January from France. Note that Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, is at the moment the strongest euroskeptic in office in the EU. Of the 15 countries that were EU members before 2004, all except Greece have for months now enjoyed visa-free travel to the USA, making it easy for all ill-wishers to point accusing fingers at those countries denied the privilege. To make matters even worse, some months ago the Czech Republic – which, according to The Guardian, considers the EU to be the new Soviet Union, climate change a myth and for whom there is nothing wrong with the international economy that a bit of patience will not fix, according to its President Klaus – struck a deal with Washington that allows Czech citizens to travel to the USA without visas. In return, the Czechs agreed to provide the USA with more data about travelers and to strengthen cooperation on air security. The rush to sign separate deals with Washington has left officials in Brussels, as well as many western European governments, aghast at what they see as the lack of interest by the new member states in pursuing common EU policies. Now speaking of the EU, the truth is that most Americans know nothing of the location, composition or purpose of the European Union. Few can even decide where Europe begins and ends. And does it or doesn’t it include Turkey as well? Sure, it is not much better on this side of the ocean either. Have Greek farmers, for example, ever heard that they must «put a toy in every pigsty or face up to three months in jail?» This ruling from Brussels was to keep pigs happy and prevent them from biting each other, it was solemnly announced. That takes gumption. Well, what is wrong with a pig having something to play with? Anyway, isn’t the porcine life a monotonous business that seldom ends well? The common European approach should surely be guarded, but not only in the case of EU regulations to end bendy bananas and the observation that «cucumbers do not have to be straight,» but also in pursuing common EU policies on visa matters, something in which new members have shown a lack of interest. No doubt much speculation surrounds the future of the EU, how many extra members it can support, and whether its goal is, as opponents claim, the forging of a European super-state. At least for 2009, the slogan is creativity versus crisis. It was festively announced by Brussels last Wednesday that this will be the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. Hopefully this will help the so-called Lisbon Agenda launched in 2001. We must remember that this agenda was aimed at making the EU «the most competitive knowledge-based economy» in the world by 2010. French President Nicolas Sarkozy ended his EU presidency last month with a successful summit that made three big decisions: An EU accord on the world’s first big climate change package, agreement on European fiscal stimulus measures to try to counter economic recession and a deal with Ireland to force a second referendum on the ill-fated Lisbon Treaty for reforming the EU, in return for concessions on Irish sensitivities. Now it unhappily falls to the Czechs to manage the implementation of these accords and oversee the run-up to European elections in June. Czech President Klaus has contemptuously dismissed all three decisions and his aides are expected to launch a new party of euroskeptics this month to contest the European ballot. The history of European civilization has been rife with attrition and dispute and the age of conflict is not over. At least with imminent change in Washington, there is hope that our country will finally be included on the coveted list of «program countries.» At a congressional hearing some time ago, Democratic Representative Robert Wexler, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on Europe, urged the US government not to leave Greece «pushed back to the end of the line.» Let’s wait and see what the Obama administration has in store for us.