Visa-free travel for the EU's East: The next frontier

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The EU has gained valuable experience in recent years in achieving visa-free travel for the citizens living in its neighbourhood. After the countries of the Western Balkans, the next on their way toward achieving visa-free travel are its eastern partners, with Russia, Ukraine and Moldova leading the way. However, this goal is unlikely to be achieved in the short term.

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Achieving visa-free travel to the EU is an objective which the governments of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have kept high on their agenda and they are at different stages of implementation.

It's a goal strongly supported by public opinion in these countries, which see obstacles to obtaining European visas as basically unfair. The EU sees the push for visa-free travel from these countries as legitimate, but insists on a number of conditions to be fulfilled before the goal is attained.

Indeed, the EU Commission has gained valuable experience in helping achieve visa-free travel with other European countries in recent times. In 2001, first Bulgaria and then Romania, at that time candidates for membership, broke the visa barrier following five years of pioneering efforts and intense lobbying.

Later, in July 2009, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro were granted "visa liberalisation", which allows for visa-free travel to the Union for a duration of up to three months. One year later, the visa requirement was also lifted for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania.

Although technically the process of achieving visa-free status does not differ from country to country, all the countries cited until now had been promised EU membership at the beginning of the "visa liberalisation" process.

Russia for one does not seek such status, while Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are covered by the EU's Neighbourhood Policy and by the more recent "Eastern Partnership" initiative, which provides for close integration, but stops short of mentioning a perspective for EU membership.

Consequently, the political impetus is not the same. There are also differences in the EU jargon: the Western Balkan countries were given a "roadmap" for visa liberalisation, while the Eastern partners got an "action plan", probably indicating that the process is more open-ended.