(dpa) - Estonia said its decision to sign a visa deal with the United States Wednesday did not break European Union rules, as Latvia prepared to sign a similar deal on the same day.
Estonian Interior Minister Juri Pihl signed a bilateral deal with US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in Tallinn, paving the way for Estonians to travel visa-free to the US.
Estonia followed the Czech Republic in splitting the EU governments and upsetting Brussels officials, who had been trying to convince Washington to extend its visa-waiver programme to include all of the EU's 27 member states.
Estonia and the US have underscored that the agreement didn't contradict the bloc's rules.
"There is nothing that is not in agreement with EU competences. Today's agreement is a crucial first step on the way to Estonia joining the visa waiver programme," Chertoff told a news conference in Tallinn, according to news reports.
Exposing the deep rift within the EU, the Czech Republic angered Brussels in February when it signed a separate bilateral deal with Washington under which it agreed to closer cooperation on air security in return for a visa waiver.
Most Europeans believe that being able to travel abroad without a visa shows they are not second rate citizens.
But many in the 12 countries that have joined the bloc since 2004 - most of which are former communist states in eastern Europe - have grown increasingly frustrated with the slow progress achieved in this area by Brussels.
"That activity from the European Union appears only when we come close to making a decision," Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis told LNT television on Wednesday in the Latvian capital, Riga.
"We cannot wait," he said.
Hungary was expected to sign a similar deal later this month.
After signing deals with Estonia and Latvia on Wednesday, Chertoff was to meet Franco Frattini, the EU's commissioner for justice and security, in Slovenia.