Visa Liberalisation for the Eastern Partnership: a Challenge for the EU-EaP Summit
EU visa policy is one of the issues which was discussed during the formal gathering of the leaders of the EU and Eastern Partnership countries, the EU-EaP Summit which took place on the 20th-30th of September in Warsaw, Poland. As technical and boring it may initially sound, the EU visa policy has got some of the most tangible outcomes for the everyday lives of citizens of the EU and EaP states and thus is of vital importance for them: it frames all contacts between people from the EU and its Eastern neighbours, be it personal, institutional, tourist or business relations. At the same time, it is an important instrument for democratisation as well as modernisation of the EaP countries. The Summit is an excellent opportunity for redefining the visa policy in such a way that it does not limit contacts between people but encourages the Eastern neighbours to introduce profound reforms. Therefore, the Coalition for the European Continent Undivided by Visa Barriers has called upon the EU and EaP leaders to reiterate their pledge to establish visa-free travel between the EU and the EaP countries and to commit to do so as soon as the technical criteria are met.
Liberalisation of the EU visa regime is not going to happen overnight. It involves profound reforms on the part of the EaP countries wishing to achieve visa-free free travel with the EU. The problem is that currently the EU has already defined very strict criteria that the EaP countries need to fulfill, yet does not offer much in return. There is no guarantee that after introducing all the burdensome and costly reforms, these countries will actually enjoy visa-free travel. Despite the fact that Moldova and Ukraine, the leaders among the EaP states in this respect, are already busy introducing the necessary reforms spelt out in the Action Plans towards visa liberalisation, the EU in its official documents still speaks about visa-free regime „in the long perspective” which borders on „never”. Such a situation is completely unjustified and only serves as a potential demotivator for the countries in question on their way to fulfilling the agreed criteria. Thus, if the EU is serious about its intention to build “a more ambitious partnership between the European Union and the partner countries”, as stated in the Prague Declaration, it should drop the wording „in the long perspective” from all future documents dealing with visa policy for the EaP states and tie more closely the dropping of visa requirement to the fulfilment of technical criteria.
One may ask, why visa-free travel is important at all. First of all, a visa regime is an enormous physical and mental barrier for contacts between people, and thus for exchanging of ideas, know-how and knowledge, broadening our horizons, busting myths and stereotypes. Also, tourism is a way of learning from experience, but it is also a source of income for the receiving societies. Yet, let alone technical problems, many people are discouraged from going to places where they feel they are not welcome. As a result, not only the EaP countries, but also Europe loses out on the opportunities rising from cross-border exchange.
As already mentioned, the road to a visa-free regime involves the fulfilment of a number of criteria. Today, two out of six EaP countries have managed to sign Action Plans on visa liberalisation. By signing these documents, Moldova and Ukraine have agreed to introduce profound reforms that cover four main areas: document security and protection of personal data, counteracting illegal migration, security and public order, as well as protection of fundamental rights. Introduction of these reforms will ensure better cooperation between the EU and EaP, including close collaboration in border management (i.e. cooperation agreements with EUROPOL, introduction of biometric passports). In other words, under a visa-free regime, external EU borders will be much better protected against illegal migrants, organised crime and trafficking of illegal goods, without imposing unnecessary burdens on regular, law-abiding EaP citizens.
Moreover, both preparations for a visa-free regime as well as exercising its benefits by the EaP citizens will strongly contribute to the democratisation and Europeisation of the Eastern neighbours. The fulfilment of criteria agreed between the EU and the EaP states will ensure greater freedom of media, better living standards (e.g. countering corruption), greater respect for the rights of minorities making these countries more immune to totalitarian governments and thus better and more reliable partners of the EU. It will also diminish push factors for long-term migration. Additionally, increased regular contacts between the EU and EaP citizens will contribute strongly to greater democratisation and will help to promote open society values in the EaP countries. Undemocratic leaders will thus lose their main argument: “Europe does not want us, why bother?”.
However, before a visa-free regime can be achieved, there are important interim steps facilitating travel between the EU and EaP states to be taken. Efforts should be made to speed up the fulfilment of provisions and regulations set out in the existing Visa Facilitation Agreements (VFA) and the Visa Code. VFAs constitute the first step in the direction of abolishing visa restrictions, but so far have largely failed to compensate for negative outcomes following the last enlargement of the Schengen zone and, despite their potential, have not made the expected significant impact on the visa procedure.
A visa-free regime will have a common win-win outcome. By collaborating with the EU in securing the borders, fighting illegal migration and crime, the EaP and EU will also be tearing down barriers that still exist in Europe twenty years after the collapse of the Iron Wall. We call on the EU and EaP leaders to renew the commitment to a visa-free regime and tie it closely to the fulfilment of technical criteria and free it from being hostage to political climates, national political calendars, popular myths and misconceptions.
The Coalition for the European Continent Undivided by Visa Barriers was launched on the initiative of the Stefan Batory Foundation (Warsaw). It is the outcome of many years of collaboration between more than thirty organisations from different parts of Europe.
Full text of the Appeal as well as more information about the Coalition can be found at www.visa-free-europe.eu
List of members of the Coalition:
Association for International Affairs (AMO), Prague, Czech Republic
Belarus Watch, Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania
Civic Belarus, Prague, Czech Republic
Center for International Relations (CIR), Warsaw, Poland
Center for Social Innovations, Minsk, Belarus
DEMAS, Prague, Czech Republic
Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania
European Citizen Action Services (ECAS), Brussels, Belgium
Education for Democracy Foundation (FED), Warsaw, Poland
Europe without Barriers, Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine
EUROBELARUS International Consortium
EUROPEUM, Prague, Czech Republic
Free Belarus Initiative, Warsaw, Poland
Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Tbilisi, Georgia
Hungarian Europe Society, Budapest, Hungary
Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (ІEAC), Kyiv, Ukraine
Institute for Public Policy, Chisinau, Moldova
Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), Warsaw, Poland
Nasz Wybór Foundation, Warsaw, Poland
Office for Democratic Belarus, Belarus/Brussels, Belgium
Open Society Institute Azerbaijan, Baku, Azerbaijan
Open Society Institute, Brussels, Belgium
Open Society Institute, Sofia, Bulgaria
Östgruppen – Swedish Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, Stockholm, Sweden
PASOS, Prague, Czech Republic
Public Movement “Multinational Georgia” (PMMG), Tbilisi, Georgia
Stowarzyszenie Projekt: Polska, Warsaw, Poland
Research Center of Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Bratislava, Slovakia
Romanian Centre for European Policies, Bucharest, Romania
Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), Bratislava, Slovakia
Soros Foundation Latvia, Riga, Latvia
Stefan Batory Foundation, Warsaw, Poland
Ternopilska Foundation, Żyrardów, Poland