OTTAWA - Canada has lifted a visa requirement for travellers from the Czech Republic, bringing them in line with most other European countries.
But visas still apply to potential visitors from Romania and Bulgaria because Canada continues to have concerns about human smuggling and organized crime gangs, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Thursday.
The issue is significant because Canada and the European Union signed an agreement in principle on a free trade deal last month that still requires the final approval of the EU's 28 member countries.
Canada's visa requirements are resented in the affected European countries, raising fears they could take steps to block the government's coveted deal with Europe.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last month in Brussels that he would eventually like to see visa-free travel between Canada and the EU.
Canada originally imposed the visa to block what it called bogus refugee claims by large numbers of ethnic Roma applicants from European countries.
Alexander said changes to Canada's asylum system will deter bogus claims from the Czech Republic.
But he said much work needs to be done before Romania and Bulgaria can join the Czech Republic in enjoying visa-free travel, especially in reducing the threat from organized crime.
"This obviously relates to the conclusion of the Canada-Europe comprehensive trade agreement but also to the hard work that has been done on both sides," said Alexander.
"It has to be said that the work with Romania and Bulgaria as with our partners in Latin America is not as far advanced as it was with the Czech Republic."
Alexander said he wants to see progress but the other countries haven't satisfied the "objective criteria" Canada has set.
"The potential presence of human smuggling and organized crime behind some of these claims that are made, those are the fronts on which we need to see progress before we are in a position to make the kind of announcement we're making today."
Mexico, meanwhile — another major trading partner — remains angry with Canada over the continued imposition of a travel visa against that country.
The country's ambassador, Francisco Suarez, has said the controversy could impact the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement and 70 years' worth of diplomatic relations.