Cosmopolitan Review

Poles and visas: a few questions for Andrew Nagorski and Dominic Roszak

Introduction by Irene Tomaszewski

OTTAWA & NEW YORK -- Poland has been a member of  NATO since 1999, and of the European Union since May 2004. Despite these strong links to the West, and the Poles' freedom of movement throughout Europe, Canada and the United States maintained their visa requirements for Polish citizens.  Polish Canadians and Polish Americans, for their part, maintained pressure on their politicians. In Canada, the government responded, and on March 1, 2008, the Minister of Immigration, Diane Finley, announced the end of the visa requirement at a special press conference in Mississauga. In the United States, things turned out quite differently. In a ceremony on the White House Lawn, Poland's neighbours and fellow EU members were informed that the US is granting their citizens visa-free travel. But Poland, a solid democracy and devoted ally, was left out. CR asked Dominic Roszak to comment on Canada's policy, and Andrew Nagorski for some insights into the American policy.

CR: What prompted the Harper Government to act so swiftly on the visa waiver for Poland?

D.R.: The lifting of the visa requirement on Polish citizens visiting Canada was a product of a number of factors.  Certainly, the lobbying by the Canadian Polish Congress and by individual members of Polonia contributed significantly to raising the profile of the request. It was actually very impressive to see several thousand Polish-Canadians getting involved in such a campaign by writing letters and sending e-mails to the Prime Minister. I would hope that this kind of active Polonia engagement increasingly extends to other areas of public life in Canada.

From my personal experience, I can also say that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government proactively pursued the lifting of visas as simply the right thing to do.  After all, Poland had by then been a full member of the European Union for 4 years and was a good friend to Canada - not to mention a growing trade partner.

Relations between Canada and Poland have never been better and now, even the United States is following Canada's lead on visa policy.

CR: Can you explain why a proven ally and member of the EU, Poland, was not granted a visa waiver by the US?

A.N.: I haven't followed the visa issue that closely, but I do know that it's tied to regulations mandated by Congress. They stipulate that a country's applicants for U.S. visas should have less than a 10 per cent rejection rate before that country can be considered for the visa waiver program. The rejection rate for Poles was until recently very high: I think it was close to 50 per cent about a decade ago (but I don't know the exact figures). It's been dropping steadily, and someone from the U.S. Embassy told me that it now is 13.7 per cent, which is very close. But this is a frustrating issue. And rejections can be subjective. The applicant has to show that he or she has a good reason to return to Poland. Both Obama and McCain claimed they would work on this issue, but the question is how much of a priority it would be for the new Administration. If they need to persuade Congress to change the rules, I suspect they'll have a lot of other more pressing business first. Probably the best hope is that the rejection rate really does fall to under 10 per cent, since it's now so close. CR

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nagorski is now director of public policy and senior fellow at the EastWest Institute, a New York-based international affairs think tank. During a long career at Newsweek, he served as the magazine's bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin. He is the author of several books and has written for countless publications. He was a speaker at the 2006 edition of PitR.

Dominic Roszak, a 2008 PitR alumnus, works for the Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and is a Master of Arts student in public administration at Carleton University in Ottawa. He is passionate about politics and international affairs, with a niche interest in Poland and Eastern Europe. In his free time, when he can find it, he enjoys tinkering with computers as well as science-fiction shows and movies. His goals in the near future include traveling to Poland on academic exchange and eventually joining the Canadian Foreign Service.