Georgia and Ukraine hail EU visa-free deal
EU negotiators have agreed terms on a deal that could see Georgians enter the EU without a visa this year and Ukrainians early next year.
The deal involves a new snap-back procedure on visa-waivers designed to put to rest concerns over illegal immigration, mainly in France and Germany.
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MEPs and member states agreed that visa-free perks could be suspended if foreign nationals overstayed their visas en masse in a two-month period, if they posed a security threat, if there was a surge in unfounded asylum applications, or if their home states refused to take back deportees.
The suspension can be triggered by a simple majority of member states or by the European Commission for a nine-month period and subsequently extended for 18 months.
The commission will also have to file annual reports to what extent the conditions are being met.
The EU already had a snap-back procedure, dating back to 2013, with fewer conditions, a reference time period of six months instead of two, and which allowed the commission alone decide whether to go ahead.
The new deal could be ratified by the European Parliament in its last session of this year, which takes place next week.
A related accord allows member states to lift visa requirements for the 3.7 million Georgians before the end of the year, due to “progress” on the suspension rules.
Visa-free travel for the 45 million Ukrainians would have to wait until early next year because member states made that conditional on the full “adoption” of the rules, which would require several weeks of legal scrubbing and translations.
Robert Kalinak, the interior minister of Slovakia, which shepherded the negotiations in its role as the EU presidency, said in a statement on Thursday: “This agreement is … extremely important for both the effectiveness and credibility of the union's visa liberalisation policy”.
Donald Tusk, Council president, said on Twitter that the EU was now in “the final stretch towards visa-free travel for Ukraine and Georgia”.
The Georgian foreign ministry said in a comment that the visa breakthrough would be “the first tangible result on the path of Georgia’s European integration”.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said on Facebook that it was “encouraging news”.
The news prompted fiery outbursts on social media by Dutch people who said that it goes against April's referendum verdict against closer ties with Ukraine.
Being on the EU’s visa-free list allows tourists and business people to visit for up to 90 days in an 180-day period, but not to take up jobs in Europe. It also does not cover access to Ireland or the UK.
The new suspension mechanism will apply to all 60-or-so EU visa-waiver states, which already include Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and the US, among others.
The EU had started visa-free talks with Russia at the same time as with Georgia and Ukraine, but Russian talks were frozen in 2014 as part of sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine.
Kosovo (1.8mn people) and Turkey (75mn) are also in line for EU visa-free travel.
Kosovo is said by the European Commission to have fulfilled technical criteria, but member states want it to make progress on fighting corruption and to finalise a border treaty with Montenegro before they go ahead.
Turkey falls short of one EU condition - softening its counter-terrorism laws so that they cannot be used against the government’s political opponents.
Ankara is refusing to do it, while threatening to scrap a deal on controlling the flow of migrants to Greece unless the EU backs down.