The Eastern Partnership countries and visa-free travel
Since the very launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2003, mobility and the progressive removal of obstacles to the free movement of people have been part of the EU's strategy towards neighbouring countries. In its Wider Europe Communication of March 2003, the European Commission's pledged to "examine wider application of visa free regimes" for citizens of the countries concerned. The overall aims of the ENP are to forge closer ties with Europe's neighbours and help them achieve stability and prosperity.
In December 2008, following the Russian-Georgian war, the European Commission designed the Eastern Partnership (EaP), a framework for more intensive cooperation between the EU and its Eastern neighbours. Of Swedish and Polish inspiration, the new initiative was formally inaugurated by EU leaders in Prague in May 2009. Among other things, the EaP aims to the promote mobility of citizens from the six Eastern partner countries – Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus – through visa facilitation and readmission agreements. At the same time, it foresees "full visa liberalisation as a long term goal." The Joint Declaration of the Prague EaP Summit reads:
"Supporting mobility of citizens and visa liberalisation in a secure environment is another important aspect of the Eastern Partnership. It will promote mobility of citizens of the partner countries through visa facilitation and readmission agreements; the EU (...) will also take gradual steps towards full visa liberalisation as a long term goal for individual partner countries on a case-by-case basis provided that conditions for well-managed and secure mobility are in place."
In practical terms, the steps leading to visa liberalisation are similar to those that the Western Balkan countries had to take. First, a partner country has to negotiate and implement visa facilitation and readmission agreements with the EU. After that, the EU offers a so-called "visa dialogue". As part of this dialogue, an "action plan for visa liberalisation" can be offered after a while.
The action plan lists the requirements that the country needs to meet to qualify for visa-free travel. The conditions are grouped under four "blocks" of issues: document security including biometrics; illegal immigration including readmission; public order and security; and external relations and fundamental rights.
Most of the requirements are the same as for the Western Balkans, and the Commission wanted to call the list of requirements a "visa roadmap" – just as it did for the Balkans. However, EU member states insisted on a different name, fearing that the process for the Balkans had set a precedent that they would have to follow: it was fast, and it was successful, ending with the lifting of the visa requirement for every participating country. They insisted that visa liberalisation process for the EaP countries remain "long term" and open-ended. This obviously clashes with the idea that the process is technical and merit-based.
Apart from carrying a different name, the action plans for the EaP countries envisage two phases of implementation: the first focusing on the adoption of the legal framework, plans and strategies, and the second dealing with their actual implementation.
In 2011, the front-runner countries in the visa liberalisation process have been Moldova and Ukraine. Both countries already received action plans for visa liberalisation – Ukraine in November 2010 and Moldova in January 2011. In September 2011, the Commission issued the first progress reports for Ukraine and Moldova, noting that in both countries "work is still under way on several pieces of draft legislation, strategies and action plans."
Georgia comes next. EU-Georgia visa facilitation and readmission agreements entered into force in March 2011. A visa dialogue should be the next step, but is not likely to be offered before the spring of 2012. The action plan will follow afterwards.
Visa-free travel with Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan is even further away: negotiations of visa facilitation and readmission agreements with these three countries are yet to begin. Concerning Belarus, the Commission was authorised by the member states in February 2011 to open negotiations of visa facilitation and readmission agreements, after which it submitted a formal invitation to the Belarusian authorities. To date, the Belarusian government has not responded. Meanwhile, the EU continues to impose travel restrictions on Belarusian officials and companies linked to the regime in reaction to the deterioration of the country's record on human rights, democracy and rule of law. With regard to Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Commission asked the Council for a mandate to open negotiations for visa facilitation and readmission agreements with Azerbaijan and Armenia in September 2011.
While Russia is part neither of the ENP nor the Eastern Partnership, it is very much interested in visa-free travel with the EU. A visa dialogue with Russia was agreed in April 2007 and opened in September of the same year (following the entry into force of visa facilitation and readmission agreements in June 2007). The EU and Russia are currently negotiating an agreement on the "common steps" that Russia will have to undertake to qualify for visa-free travel ("common steps" being yet another name for "visa roadmap" or "action plan for visa liberalisation"). At the end of July 2011, the Commission also proposed to extend a local border traffic regime for the inhabitants of parts of Kaliningrad to the entire Kaliningrad enclave and parts of Poland.
Visa liberalisation for EaP countries is supposed to remain a "gradual" process. By stalling for time, EU member states are undermining their own interests. The reforms that the EaP countries are required to implement will turn them into partners who help protect the EU's external borders and contribute to the EU's security. The faster they work, the better for the EU.
(This text reflects the situation in September 2011.)
The road to visa-free travel
Useful Links – Websites
"Where Europe ends"
"Where Europe Ends" is a 50 minutes documentary produced by Romanian Academic Society and Mrakonia Film, with the support of Black Sea Trust and Friederich Ebert Stiftung, on the consequences of EU enlargement on the border areas of EU adjoining countries Moldova and Ukraine.
There is also a policy report in addition to the film.
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