Coherent approach needed on visa liberalisation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Freedom of movement, including the opportunity to cross state borders without unnecessary obstacles, is of great significance in people’s lives. For this reason, visa policy should not be used as a political instrument, writes Peter Van Elsuwege.

Peter Van Elsuwege is a professor of EU law at Ghent University in Belgium.

"On 11 March 2013, the European Commission published the ‘common steps towards visa free short-term travel of Russian and EU citizens'.

The release of this document is remarkable because not so long ago, the Council of the EU refused public access to this document because "its unilateral release by the EU would negatively affect the climate of confidence among the actors involved in the negotiations and would prejudice the EU’s relations with Russia."

Moreover, and this was perhaps the most important consideration from the EU point of view, "this would not only prejudice the EU’s relations with Russia, but would also enable the public as well as third countries, to compare those objectives to the results of the negotiations, and to evaluate the EU’s willingness to compromise in future negotiations on similar subjects."

Indeed, the EU is also involved in a visa liberalisation dialogue with several Eastern Partnership countries (including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia).

The main instrument of this dialogue are so-called ‘Visa Liberalisation Action Plans’, which include a list of benchmarks. The speed of movement towards visa liberalisation depends on progress made by the Eastern Partnership country in fulfilling the required conditions and is closely examined by the Council and the Commission.

In other words, the entire process is based on a very tough conditionality approach with the EU as the dominant actor. This is particularly the case because the eastern partners already unilaterally abandoned the visa requirement for EU citizens entering their territory.

The situation with Russia is slightly different. First of all because the Russian Federation does not fall within the scope of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Secondly, because Russia has always refused to take any unilateral steps towards visa liberalisation for EU citizens. Hence, reciprocity is the keyword in the context of EU-Russia visa relations.

This explains why with Russia the process on visa liberalisation is not based on an ‘Action Plan’ but on the ‘Common Steps’ document. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of visa free short-travel is the same.

It is, therefore, not surprising that  the structure of the Action Plans for the Eastern Partnership countries, on the one hand, and the Common Steps document with Russia, on the other hand, is largely comparable.

In both occasions, visa liberalisation depends on progress with regard to four sets of issues:

  • Document security, including biometrics;
  • Illegal immigration, including readmission;
  • Public order and security;
  • External relations.

Whereas the requirements under the first three are rather technical and specific in nature, such as the introduction of biometric passports in accordance to international standards, effective border management controls and effective readmission of illegal immigrants, ‘external relations’ is largely political.

Not surprisingly, this is the field where major discrepancies between the Actions Plans and the Common Steps can be observed. For instance, the Action Plan for Ukraine refers to ‘external relations and fundamental rights’ requiring amongst other things, the adoption and effective implementation of legislation and policies on anti-discrimination.

In contrast, the document with Russia is less demanding on the protection of fundamental rights and only requires to ‘discuss and cooperate’ on relevant recommendations of international human rights organisations.

Obviously, allegations of double standards loom around the corner. Why should the introduction of a visa-free regime with the Eastern Partnership countries be subject to the observance of fundamental rights concerns when for Russia discussion and cooperation appears to be sufficient?

Does it mean that the protection of fundamental rights is considered less important in the EU’s relations with Russia?

At least, the granting of a visa waiver for service passport holders under the amended visa facilitation agreement – to be signed on the occasion of the forthcoming EU-Russia Yekaterinburg summit – creates the impression that the Union is not very consistent in its criticisms on the state of the rule of law in Russia. 

However, it is also possible to adopt another perspective. It may well be argued that the establishment of a visa free regime should not depend on the domestic political situation in Russia precisely because abolishing the visa requirement will lead to increased people-to-people contacts and information exchange and, as such, contribute to the development of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

Freedom of movement, including the opportunity to cross state borders without unnecessary obstacles, is of great significance in people’s lives. For this reason, visa policy should not be used as a political instrument.

This is certainly a legitimate argument but if it applies to Russia it should also apply to the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Otherwise, the EU will remain subject to double standard allegations undermining its credibility in the Eastern neighbourhood."

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