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


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.

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. 

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.

Who's leading?

According to Rafa? 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.

Industry interests

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. 

The President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich called the visa dialogue "one of the tests on the EU's willingness to build trust and openness" with his country.

"I am convinced that Ukraine's success in implementing the necessary EU requirements should be embodied in a very speedy liberalisation of visa regime for Ukrainian citizens," the president said, as reported by the Ukrainian Radio on 3 April.

Russia and Europe could scrap visas in 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, as quoted on 6 April by the Kyiv Post.

"We shall work to complete most parts of the Joint Steps by the [EU-Russia summit in late 2012], which would allow us to make a decision to start talks on drafting an EU-Russia agreement on visa abolition and, possibly, get visa-free travel introduced by as early as 2014," Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Information and Press Mariya Zakharova told reporters.

The hardest task for Ukraine achiving a visa-free travel in the EU will be meeting the Union's expectations on democracy, tackling corruption and the rule of law, Marta Jaroszewicz from Polish think-tank the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) wrote in a recent analysis.

"Corruption remains the main barrier to Ukraine's development and modernisation; the courts are weak and the judicial system inefficient […] For these reasons, the complete abolition of visas seems to be a long-term perspective, especially considering that many EU countries, which themselves are faced with the problem of migrants' integration, are rather sceptical about the further liberalisation of movement of people with their eastern neighbours," she argues.

MEP Pawe? Kowal (ECR, Poland), who is also Chairman of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee in the European Parliament, said he saw no reasons for the visa regime between the EU and Ukraine to be maintained, and said that "the number one priority" in the relations between Kyiv and the Union should be lifting the visa barrier.

According to a survey, quoted by Ukrinform, 68.7% of Ukrainians have no plans to travel to the EU even if no visas were required. Only 5.4% of the country's nationals express a strong interest in visiting the Schengen countries. Another 11.6% are considering to taka advantage of the possibility to travel, but haven't decided yet.

Visa-free travel for Ukrainians is not a threat for the EU, a representative of the NGO "Europe without borders" was quoted as saying.

  • Before summer: Georgia to open visa dialogue.
  • Later this year [possibly]: Commission to publish report when first benchmarks of the Action Plan for Visa Liberalisation with Ukraine and Georgia are implemented.
  • 2014: Russia has set this year as a goal for achieving visa-free travel for its citizens to the EU. Winter Sochi Olympics will take place between 7 and 12 February 2014.

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