Sunday

24th Mar 2019

EU and Russia meet amid disagreements over visas

EU and Russian leaders on Monday evening (31 May) gather for a two-day summit in southern Russia aimed at boosting industrial and trade links, with few prospects in agreeing on visas and human rights.

The meeting in the south-western Russian city of Rostov-on-Don will likely be concluded by a political declaration, dubbed "Partnership for modernisation" on renewing economic, industrial co-operation and trade links with EU's largest eastern neighbour.

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  • Russia and the EU are set to agree on more industrial co-operation (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Yet little progress is expected on the more contentious issues of human rights and granting Russia a "road map" and a deadline for a visa-free regime, which Moscow had been pressing for in recent weeks.

Instead, the EU will offer "common steps" to be established between Russian and European Commission officials in view of a "long-term goal" to lift visas. But apart from the technicalities of biometric passports and border management procedures, Russia's human rights abuses, the 2008 war with Georgia, its politicised and inefficient judiciary, rampant corruption and organised crime have determined even Moscow-friendly member states such as Germany to raise flags against a proper "road map" for lifting visa requirements.

So far, Brussels has only granted such "road maps" to Balkan countries which are ultimately in line for EU accession. Since it launched the Eastern Partnership, a new neighbourhood policy for six ex-Soviet countries including Ukraine and Georgia, the EU also raised the prospect of visa liberalisation with these neighbouring countries.

Moscow subsequently pressed to be granted a similar perspective at the EU-Russia summit, saying it would be ready to lift visas for EU citizens "tomorrow" if the move was reciprocated.

But EU officials take these statements with a pinch of salt and point to the fact that last year, Russia granted 1.6 million short-term visas to EU citizens, while on its side, the EU gave 3.6 million.

Adding to the concerns of the EU's new member states regarding Russia's bullish stance towards is smaller neighbours and its poor record on human rights - the bulk of the cases in the European Court of Human Rights have been filed by Russian citizens against the state - the country's "sheer size" is also contributing to the wariness of the bloc to move too fast on the visa freedom issue, EU officials say.

Instead, the EU will press for a "Partnership for modernisation," proposed by EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso last year in Stockholm, comprising of wide-ranging co-operation areas in areas such as space technology and energy networks, transport links, aligning industrial standards and promoting bilateral trade.

On the latter, the EU delegation headed by European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso, will push for Moscow to join the World Trade Organisation, a move which would make international trade rules binding for Russian companies and for the government in relationship to foreign businesses.

Moscow in the past has signalled it wanted to wait for Kazakhstan and Belarus to reach the stage of preparedness so that they would join the WTO together as a customs union. But the economic crisis and the need for foreign investments may lead to a change of mood in the Kremlin on this issue.

One matter of contention in the WTO dossier are the Siberian overflight charges levied by Russia from foreign companies, which cost European airlines €350 million a year. During an EU-Russia summit in 2006, then President Vladimir Putin pledged to scrap these charges "immediately" – something yet to happen.

EU officials accept the fact that with two EU-Russia summits a year, it is difficult to "deliver" concrete results and that despite all pledges and political declarations, it is ultimately up to the Russian leadership to determine progress.

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