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PARIS -- The European Commission is threatening sanctions unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government meets a deadline to let citizens from several European countries visit Canada without visas.


In a report presented to the European Council on Tuesday, the European Union complained about delays and a lack of transparency on Canada's part in the negotiations on obtaining visa-free status for eight new EU members: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.


The report said Harper, speaking at the EU-Canada Summit in Berlin in June, had indicated that visa requirements may be lifted for one or two of the eight countries by the end of this year.


"The commission would propose that, in order to demonstrate its commitment to resolution of the issue, Canada be urged to lift the visa requirement for one or more EU member states by the end of the year and to show further tangible progress towards reciprocity in the first half year of 2008," it stated.


"Failing such progress, appropriate steps could be considered against Canada."


An EU spokesman told CanWest News Service that sanctions could be symbolic, starting with a requirement that Canadian diplomats obtain visas to travel to EU countries.


The EU even has the authority to impose a visa requirement for all Canadians traveling to EU countries, said Friso Roscam-Abbing, the union's spokesman for Justice, Liberty and Security


"At this point in time we are not suggesting that they be imposed on Canada ... but we would like to see tangible progress from Canada," he said.


"If this will fail to materialize we will retain our right to impose appropriate measures before the end of the year."


A spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, who wouldn't comment on the sanctions threat, said visas are a useful tool used to "protect the integrity" of Canada's immigration and refugee programs.


She said Canadian officials will visit the eight EU countries in coming months to investigate ways to lift the visa requirements.


"We are committed to the free and secure movement of people between the EU and Canada, and to the objective of visa exemption for all EU member states as soon as possible," Marina Wilson said.


Canada and the U.S. were among four countries singled out in the report, although the EU doesn't suggest possible sanctions against the Americans.


Harper told the EU in June that Canada won't act simply on the basis that the eight countries don't impose visa requirements on Canadians.


"He indicated that Canada based its decisions on assessment of each country's circumstances, and not on reciprocity, and that, in this respect, cross-border travel between the U.S.A. and Canada is a very important consideration," the report said.


The EU said it has faced "regrettable" delays in gaining Canada's co-operation.


"Canada has made its visa review process more transparent and provided more information on the thresholds and their implementation, albeit after a considerable delay."


(Courtesy of CanWest News Service)

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