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Polish official: Why does the United States treat us worse than the rest of Europe?

Visitors from most EU countries can come to the United States for short stays without applying for a visa from the State Department, but Poland can’t get that special status — and it is not at all happy about it. "Maybe one day the American Congress will find a good reason to finally lift the ...

Visitors from most EU countries can come to the United States for short stays without applying for a visa from the State Department, but Poland can't get that special status -- and it is not at all happy about it.

"Maybe one day the American Congress will find a good reason to finally lift the visa restrictions which we think are very unfair and completely unjustified," Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland's Secretary of State for European Affairs, told The Cable in an interview.

He's referring to Poland's longstanding request to be included in the State Department's Visa Waiver Program, which currently allows citizens from 36 countries to enter the United States and stay for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. This is among the top agenda items for Polish officials dealing with the United States, and a leading irritant in the otherwise positive U.S.-Polish relationship.

Visitors from most EU countries can come to the United States for short stays without applying for a visa from the State Department, but Poland can’t get that special status — and it is not at all happy about it.

"Maybe one day the American Congress will find a good reason to finally lift the visa restrictions which we think are very unfair and completely unjustified," Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, told The Cable in an interview.

He’s referring to Poland’s longstanding request to be included in the State Department’s Visa Waiver Program, which currently allows citizens from 36 countries to enter the United States and stay for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. This is among the top agenda items for Polish officials dealing with the United States, and a leading irritant in the otherwise positive U.S.-Polish relationship.

For the Poles, the Visa Waiver Program status is a matter of pride for a country that sees itself on par with other Western European giants. Poland also sees itself as a reliable ally of the United States that has constantly deepened cooperation on a range of matters, including ballistic missile defense, and the deployment of a proportionally large contingent of troops to Afghanistan.

"Maybe one day here in Washington people will treat Poland as a reliable and important partner in the European Union, not just some country with sentimental links," Dowgielewicz said.

Polish officials are quick to point out that Poland is the only country in what’s known as the "Schengen Area" not to have the preferred visa status. The Schengen Agreement basically removed internal travel borders between the 25 European states that have signed it, meaning that Poles can travel almost anywhere in the West freely, besides the United States.

In April, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski discussed the matter with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the issue came again up during Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg’s visit to Poland Oct. 7 to participate in the Wroclaw Global Forum. When asked about the issue by the Polish Press Agency, Steinberg said that the United States wanted to welome Polish visitors into the country, but that Poland had not met congressionally mandated standards for entering the Visa Waiver Program.

An administration official told The Cable that, according to the rules, Poland has to drastically lower the number of its visa applicants who get rejected when they apply for entry to the United States. Around 10 percent of Poles get rejected for visas, the official said, while the threshold for entry is that less than 3 percent must be rejected by the American consular officials who review their applications.

The administration official suggested that, in the long term, Poland might reach that threshold. "The trend in Poland is very positive, it’s now hovering at 10 percent and it is in the downward direction," the official said.

But this rationale only frustrates the Poles more because, until recently, 10 percent would have been good enough. Under the 9/11 implementation bill, countries could be added to the program when they reached 10 percent. But because the Homeland Security Department failed to meet a deadline to add a related biometric program, the threshold shot back down to 3 percent last year.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, and Latvia all joined the program when 10 percent was the threshold, leaving the Poles feeling even more left out of the party.

Privately, there is still some concern in the U.S. government that Polish visitors are more likely to overstay their visas and remain in the United States illegally. Polish officials reject this reasoning as well.

"We can travel freely around the globe. For example, we can travel to Canada and there doesn’t seem to be a big invasion of Poles in Canada," Dowgielewicz said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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