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15th Dec 2018

Juncker promises Ukraine visa-free travel

  • EU-Ukraine ties deepening despite the Russian invasion (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Jean-Claude Juncker has said he’ll back EU visa-free travel for Ukrainians by the end of the year, despite the political climate on migration.

The European Commmission president made the announcement alongside Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko in Brussels on Thursday (26 August).

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  • Juncker: 'I don’t doubt for a second the member states will approve visa-free travel' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

“The commission intends to propose, by the end of the year, visa-liberalisation, but the [final] decision has to be made by member states”, he told press.

He spoke of Ukraine’s “enormous progress” on technical compliance, such as electronic border checks, and readmission protocols.

He said the “main point” left to tick off is anti-corruption reforms.

When asked if the migrant crisis might generate ill-will on visas in EU capitals, he said: “Because of the commission’s positive assessment, given the progress in Ukraine, I don’t doubt for a second the member states will approve visa-free travel. There’s no link between visa-free travel, as far as Ukraine is concerned, and the migration issue”.

For his part, Poroshenko noted that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians already enter the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone each year, then go home despite the war.

“We have small border traffic [with neighbouring EU states] which is already visa-free … and we don’t cause any problems”, he said.

Juncker’s announcement came a few days before EU states’ delegations get back to work after the summer break.

But it caused surprise among the few on-duty EU diplomats in Brussels.

“Knowing Juncker, he takes very wide-ranging initiatives”, one EU contact said, referring to the commission's recent proposal on obligatory migrant quotas, which was struck down by the EU Council.

“It’s difficult to say”, if the Council will back Ukraine visa-free travel, another EU diplomat noted.

A diplomat from a third EU state said "there are still those [in the EU Council] who say Ukraine's hasn't done enough to fulfil technical criteria".

The question of Ukraine visas has vexed the EU since 2005, when Ukraine unilaterally lifted visa requirements for EU citizens after its Orange Revolution.

The commission began technical talks with Kiev in 2008.

But even before the migrant crisis, a bloc of EU states including Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain were lukewarm on the idea.

Poland has long supported it.

But its new president, Andrzej Duda, told German media on Thursday that if the war escalates, then the EU can expect “several hundred thousand” Ukrainian refugees.

Seven dead

Juncker and Poroshenko spoke one day after pro-Russia fighters killed seven Ukrainian soldiers, amid a recent flare-up in shelling and small-arms fire.

Poroshenko blamed Russia for the violence and urged the EU to extend its Russia sanctions when they expire in January.

Juncker said both sides must respect the so-called Minsk ceasefire accord, but added: “I address this especially to Russia”.

Poroshenko also said the conflict hasn’t halted Ukraine’s reform process.

He said he'll hold local elections on 25 October in all the regions where Kiev is in control.

But he said the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk won’t be part of the decentralisation programme until the war ends.

“With Russian troops on occupied territory, with an open border to Russia, with no permission for Ukrainian parties to conduct election campaigns, with no foreign observers, such an election is not acceptable”.

He added he’s ready to share power with democratically elected local chiefs, but not with “persons appointed by Moscow”.

Juncker also promised the EU-Ukraine free trade pact will enter into life in January despite Russia’s threats of trade sanctions.

“All moves to delay the entry into life of the pact have had no influence on the European Commission”, he said.

Poroshenko noted that Cyprus and Greece are the only two EU states which haven't yet ratified the trade treaty, but he said “we hope this process will be quickly finished”.

Debt-relief

The visa-free news came the same day international creditors agreed to write off 20 percent of Ukraine’s debt.

They also agreed to defer bond repayments until Ukraine’s economy grows by at least 3 percent in any given year.

Ukraine’s GDP shrank 7 percent last year and the World Bank says it’ll shrink 8 percent this year, despite payments from a $17billion International Monetary Fund bailout and €3.8 billion of EU assistance.

Opinion

EU needs to step up its game in Ukraine

The EU should not expect Russia to change its posture in the foreseeable future, because confrontational EU and US relations suit the Kremlin.

EU and US condemn Kiev violence

The EU and US have condemned violence in Kiev, which left one policeman dead and hospitalised more than 140 people.

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