The EU's visa policy is building on the experience of the Schengen group since its creation in 1985. Today, the border-free Schengen Area guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens, as well as to many non-EU nationals, businessmen, tourists or other persons legally present on the EU territory.
The EU has a common list of countries whose citizens must have a visa when crossing the external borders and a list of countries whose citizens are exempt from that requirement. These lists are set out in Regulation No 539/2001 and its successive amendments. Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, which are covered in this links dossier, all appear on the so-called "negative" visa list. As a result, their nationals are required to obtain a Schengen visa before being allowed on Schengen territory.
‘Facilitation’ versus ‘liberalisation’
The EU has concluded "visa facilitation" agreements with Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Under these agreements, categories of citizens can benefit from facilitated procedures for issuing visas.
Visa facilitation agreements are linked to readmission agreements. Readmission agreements establish the procedures for the return to the EU or to the partner non-EU country of persons (own and third country nationals or stateless persons) in an irregular situation.
EU states may also individually negotiate agreements on local border traffic with neighbouring non-EU countries. These agreements enable border residents of well-defined areas to cross the EU external borders, under certain conditions, without having to obtain a visa.
The biggest example so far is the lifting of the visa requirement for the citizens of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, which would be able to benefit from visa-free travel into a 30 to 50 km zone inside the two EU countries.
But visa facilitation and local border traffic remain a low priority, compared to visa liberalisation.
The ‘Action Plans’
For Ukraine, a dialogue leading to visa liberalisation was launched on 29 October 2008. An Action Plan for Visa Liberalisation (VLAP) was presented to Ukraine at the EU-Ukraine Summit on 22 November 2010. Recently, the second progress report on VLAP was adopted.
According to experts, the adoption of VLAP has been a clear success for Ukraine. Marta Jaroszewicz, head of the Department for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, said that VLAP does not differ substantially from the road maps granted to the Western Balkan states in 2008 (the citizens of these states recently obtained in two waves, in 2009 and in 2010, visa-free entry to the EU).
Thus, Ukraine has received a relatively standard document which sets quite strict requirements in five key spheres: document security including biometrics, illegal migration including readmission, public order and security, external relations and fundamental rights.
In the case of Moldova, an Action Plan for Visa Liberalisation was presented on 24 January 2011.
In both cases, a special chapter is devoted to "Public order and Security": preventing and fighting organised crime, terrorism and corruption.
Commission experts say there was a key difference with the Western Balkans in that the Action Plans where simply presented to Ukraine and Moldova, while the roadmaps for visa liberalisation for the Western Balkan countries were negotiated.
But more importantly, the VLAPs appear open-ended and their completion appears to be a distant goal. Although EU officials don't recognise it openly, achieving visa-free travel with large countries such as Ukraine or Russia is linked to the capacity of the Union to receive a wave of labour migration coming from Europe's east.
In theory, the future beneficiaries of visa-free travel would only have the right to stay for up to three months, if they have the necessary means to sustain themselves. The practice shows however that many travellers from the impoverished East seek to settle for a longer time and profit from the relatively better paid labour in the West.
According to Rafał Sadowski from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Polish think-tank, for now neither Moldova nor Ukraine has succeeded in obtaining the Commission’s approval to start implementing the second phase of the action plans, although the governments of both countries had stated that this would happen before the end of 2011.
Sadowski writes that in spite that it had started the process later, Moldova was "much more advanced than Ukraine" in its implementation of the action plan. Moldova has almost completely accomplished the task regarding document security, and the others issues are at an advanced stage.
Ukraine's progress is assessed as ‘limited’ in most areas (outside the area of illegal migration, where it has adopted the relevant legislation), he claims [more].
In the case of Georgia, the country ranking third according to its preparedness for visa-free travel among the Eastern Partnership countries, the EU executive hopes that visa facilitation dialogue could be opened before summer.
With Armenia and Azerbaijan, the process is at a more belated stage of "ongoing negotiations leading to opening a dialogue," experts told EurActiv.
Belarus is a special case. Although the country is part of the Eastern Partnership, its relations with the EU are next to the freezing point, as a result of the authoritarian course of its President Alexander Lukashenko, known as "Europe's last dictator".
The Russian case
Russia is running on its own track to achieve visa-free travel for its nationals, as its EU relation is not part of either the EU neighbourhood policy or the Eastern Partnership.
In theory, Russia is not in competition with Ukraine or any other country to attain this goal. But in practice the political implications of either side getting there first are important.
On the territory of the former Soviet Union, nationals from one its former republics could relatively easily obtain passports from another such republic, now a sovereign country. If Russia would obtain visa-free status with the EU first, a number of nationals from countries seeking a more integrated relationship with Brussels, such as Ukraine or Moldova, could be tempted to obtain Russian citizenship.
Brussels and Moscow agreed in 2011, on the occasion of the EU-Russia summit in Brussels, on the basic conditions leading to visa liberalisation.
Apparently, Russia is interested in achieving intermediate goals, leading to a full-fledged visa-free regime. Already, visas have been abolished for the holders of diplomatic passports, on a reciprocity basis.
In addition, Russia asks that Brussels abolishes visas completely for owners of official passports – employees of different ministries and bodies participating in EU negotiations. According to RIA Novosti, currently about 15,000 people in Russia and 20,000 in EU have such passports.
Russia also asks the EU to issue five-year multi-entry visas to members of official delegations, entrepreneurs, participants to scientific, cultural and sports events, students on exchange programs, journalists and international drivers.
There is a difference between Russia and countries of the Eastern Partnership with regard to the EU in the sense that Ukraine and Moldova for instance don't require visas for EU citizens to enter its territory for up to 90 days, while Russia does.
The tourism business in several EU countries appears to be lobbying for lifting the visa requirement for Russians.
Moreover, Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani, in charge of enterprise and industry, including tourism, has pleaded for easing visa requirements on foreign tourists, starting with nationals from Russia, China and Brazil. His call however drew a rebuke from Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who said in a letter to the College of Commissioners that the credibility of the EU visa policy should not be undermined by economic interests.
Tajani cited Slovakia's tourism minister, who recently told him that for his country, it was very important to have more tourists from Russia and Ukraine. Reportedly, the EU is losing a lot of Russian tourists to Turkey, a country which doesn't require visas for Russian nationals.
The Industry Commissioner also appeared to welcome the idea of easing visa conditions for sporting events. Ukraine is co-hosting the Euro 2012 football championship with Poland in June, while Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Precisely, Russia has set 2014 as the target date for achieving visa-free travel for its nationals to the EU.
However, the Commission says it has been able to resort to simplified procedures for visa issuing since the 2004 summer Olympics in Greece, the experience being further developed on the occasion of the 2006 Torino winter Olympics.
From Commission sources, EurActiv has learned that the EU executive would not be prepared to take any big sports event as a target date for achieving visa-free regime, be it with Russia or Ukraine.