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EU backs down on Czech-US air security pact

The European Union backed down from threatened action against the Czech Republic for signing a separate air security and visa pact with the United States.

Prague angered the EU's executive Commission and some member states on Tuesday by signing the deal, designed to make it easier for Czechs to travel to the United States without visas.

Critics said this infringed on the EU's authority over visa and border policy. They also fear Washington may use such pacts to press member states to hand it more intrusive private data on air passengers than it currently receives under a US-EU deal.

A day after threatening unspecified action against Prague, senior EU officials said on Thursday they could live with member states striking individual deals providing they respect certain limits or “red lines.”

Asked whether bilateral deals with Washington would be allowed, Dragutin Mate, interior minister of EU president Slovenia, said “It will be possible.”

“When we have signed one agreement (the Czech one), I believe it is hard to find a solution to negotiate for the whole union,” he said on arrival at a meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers due to discuss the matter later on Thursday.

“But if we have guidelines saying where are the limits, then we can protect our priorities.”

Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer said Prague was left with no other option as EU-US talks had failed to get his country, an EU member since 2004, into the US visa waiver scheme.

“We've been waiting for four years to share not only the duties but also the freedoms,” Langer told reporters. “I am not a slave of the European Commission,” he added.

Most EU states are already part of the U.S. visa waiver program, but not 11 mostly ex-communist countries that joined the bloc in 2004 and 2007, along with older member Greece.

Hungary, Estonia and possibly others are now expected to follow Prague's example.

“What is absolutely necessary is to be clear on a common set of guidelines,” EU justice and security commissioner Franco Frattini said.

An EU diplomat said Slovenia had suggested the “red lines” would include not handing out more advanced personal data on air travelers than agreed in an overall EU-US pact, and not giving Washington access to European police and visa databases.

The issue of allowing armed air marshals on board flights - another US request - is up to each government as the EU has no authority on this matter, the diplomat said.

Diplomats from a number of older EU states including the Netherlands, Spain, France and Portugal accused Washington this week of trying to bypass the EU, and Prague of breaking ranks.

Prague will continue to allow armed US air marshals on flights to and from the United States, and Czech air travelers will have to fill in a form with personal information on the Internet, according to the deal agreed on Tuesday. The two sides will share information on air passengers.

In return, the United States would make it easier for Prague to access its visa-free program, by waiving a condition that the program only apply if less than 3% of Czech travelers had visa requests refused. (Reuters)