Last updated: 08:00 PM ET, Fri June 03 2016

Tour Insights: Days of Reckoning for the EU and its Travel Industry

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | June 03, 2016

Tour Insights: Days of Reckoning for the EU and its Travel Industry

The European Union seems besieged on all sides as it nears its moment of truth with this month’s vote in Britain on whether to stay in the Union or go it alone.

Though Donald Trump did not recognize the word “Brexit” in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the stakes involved in Britain’s impending election to decide whether to stay or go will be large for Trump if he becomes president, as well as for U.S. travelers in general.

If Britain’s population votes to leave the European Union, how will the organization unravel? It seems likely that the divorce, should it happen, cannot help but be messy. Taking the EU apart might be almost as complicated as it has been putting it together, a process which is far from complete.

But it seems that either way the freedom to travel freely among the countries in Europe without having to present a passport at each border is unraveling. The implications for travel and tourism are clearly extremely negative and not what an already challenged industry needs at this time.

With all the chaos from the refugee crisis growing out of the wars in the Middle East, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, it is almost inevitable that freedom of movement in Europe will diminish at best. The member countries of the EU are already erecting barriers at border crossings.

Germany, Austria, France, Sweden and Denmark have reinstituted passport control border checks in recent months. More recently, Austria imposed a “border management plan.” Under EU statutes they can do so for six months. As the six-month limit approaches the countries are looking for ways to extend the checks for an additional two years.

The New York Times reported that a checkpoint at Freilassing, Germany, changed one of the busiest highways in Europe, which used to flow freely, into a giant permanent traffic jam that has delayed deliveries of goods, made life for commuters between Austria and Germany almost impossible to maintain and made weekend getaways in the area nonviable.

Research by the French government has indicated that the re-introduction of border controls would cost the EU countries $109 billion over 10 years. But a billion dollars a year spread among 26 nations may not seem as pressing to these governments right now as the current issues that are causing them to consider re-imposing the restrictions.

With problems on that order of magnitude, a smaller issue could get lost in the cracks, another issue that highlights the extreme difficulty of trying to united 26 nations into a single entity under a single body of laws. The devil is in the details, and what a devil it is!

Under the laws of the EU, the transnational government is required to seek full reciprocity in visa treatment for all its member states. The U.S. and Canadian governments grant visa-free entry to citizens of all of the original European Union countries, but they have not extended that privilege to the newer member countries Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Poland.

Under this technicality, the EU could be required to impose visa requirements on travelers from the U.S. and Canada. Under this mandate, the EU submitted a formal notice to the governments of Canada and the U.S. approximately two years ago asking them to extend visa-free travel to the newer members of the EU. The North American governments did not respond within the 24-month notice period, so now the matter has been moved on to the next step, consideration by the EU Council and Parliament.

Obviously the move would benefit almost no one, but it is nevertheless what the laws of the EU require and the initiative is moving forward automatically.

While government officials may be under obligation to move forward as their laws require, the private sector travel industry is freaking out, and for good reason. Travel businesses can easily imagine the economic hemorrhaging that would result in Europe. The European Tour Operators Association estimated that the move would cut the number of visitors from North America by 30 percent.

Mario Bodini, the chairman of the European Tour Operators Association, while acknowledging that it would be just and fair for the North American countries to extend reciprocity to the newer EU members, said that the issue is not worth what the association calculates would cost the region billions of euros and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

In April, EU officials moved to delay its decision on reciprocity until July 12. Now that dark deadline is only a month away. It is not even clear that EU countries have the capacity to process all the visa applications from North America in any kind of timely way. The fallout for the tourism industry is an incalculable nightmare.

So it’s a big summer for Europe and its travel industry. Let’s hope for the best.

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