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18th Jan 2019

EU eyes open borders with post-Soviet countries

  • Passport control at the Fryderyk Chopin airport in Warsaw. Ukraine diplomats describe the EU visa regime as 'a new Berlin Wall' (Photo: afagen)

The EU is likely to take a big step toward visa-free travel with Russia at an upcoming summit. But Poland wants to make sure that other post-Soviet countries, especially Ukraine, are also included.

EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (10 May) raised the prospect of handing Russia a roadmap for visa-free travel at a regular summit to take place in Rostov-on-Don, near the Black Sea coast, on 31 May.

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Finland's Alexander Stubb said after the meeting that Germany favours the idea. "For me the key issue of the summit is the visa issue," he told German press agency DPA. "There have been very positive movements: Germany has been a swing state."

The roadmap is a list of reforms that a country has to put in place to qualify for visa-free travel, such as introduction of biometric passports, adoption of laws on data protection and improvement of border security. It does not oblige the EU to drop visa requirements on a set date. But it does oblige the union to react if the target country meets the criteria.

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski said the EU should not leave out in the cold the six post-Soviet countries in its Eastern Partnership scheme, however. The scheme covers Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

"The political impulse for intensifying visa dialogue must be the same for all these countries - Russia and the six countries of the Eastern Partnership, and we will defend this. Visa policy cannot go against our declared foreign policy," he told Polish media on Monday.

Visas are a hot topic in eastern Europe.

Prior to starting visa-facilitation talks, Georgia had for years complained that the EU is undermining its territorial integrity by letting people with Russian passports, including those in its breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, travel on easier terms than people with Georgian passports.

Ukrainian diplomats are bitter that the EU is happy to open borders with Russia but not with Ukraine, despite Ukraine's democratic transformation.

Ease of travel also makes a big difference to ordinary peoples' feeling toward the EU and their appetite for pro-EU reforms.

A recent study by the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw noted that Polish consulates have granted 73 percent fewer visas to Belarussians since Poland joined the EU's passport-free Schengen zone in 2007, tightening entry rules.

A survey by a consortium of Ukrainian think tanks found that people face queues, days-long delays, mysterious extra fees and unexplained refusals when trying to visit the EU.

Friends like these

Representatives from 14 countries calling themselves the "Friends of Ukraine" - the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and the UK - met with Ukraine's foreign minister, Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, at the Polish embassy in Brussels on Monday morning.

Mr Sikorski said Mr Gryshchenko promised that Ukraine will not enter a customs union with Russia and will not recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"I hope that one of the things our Ukrainian friend took out of the meeting is that Ukraine will not come closer to the EU for geopolitical reasons, but only if it carries out on its side what it has already committed to," he added.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement that: "The new Ukrainian authorities believe the realisation of this idea [EU integration] is impossible without also ensuring predictable, constructive and economically beneficial relations with Russia."

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