EU agrees on Ukraine – Georgia visa-free travel amid veto risks and populist fears

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Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission (from left to right) at the EU- Ukraine Summit in Brussels last Month. © European Union , 2016 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Etienne Ansotte.

Last week was a historic one for the long and delicate debate of the European Union-Ukraine relations. EU officials have indeed come to a deal that could see the citizens of the former Soviet republic travel to the European bloc without a visa.

This decision also applies to Georgia. Both the Caucasian country and Kiev have been long awaiting the deal, as a strategic move to step away from Russia’s orbit. Despite that, internal EU talks have been stalling for many weeks over criticism, which is something that might still have an echo inside the bloc.

Background

Ukraine’s visa-free regime negotiations with the European Union have played a substantial role in the whole Russia-Ukraine crisis matter. Negotiations officially started in 2010, as soon as both parties signed a Visa Facilitation Agreement, but it was in 2012, when the EU initialled deals on free trade and political association with Ukraine, that the question gained momentum.

Despite the initial boost, EU leaders stated that these agreements would not be ratified unless Ukraine provides formal explanation over what was called a “stark deterioration of democracy and the rule of law”, including the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko in 2011 and 2012.

But although the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had promised that the Ukrainian parliament would have adopted laws to make Ukraine meet the EU’s criteria, the Ukrainian government then suspended all preparations in late 2013, triggering the EuroMaidan Revolution.

Once Yanukovych’s government fell over and President Poroshenko rose to power, Brussels intensified its dialog on the visa-free regime. After two years of talks and promises from Brussels, last November the President of the European Council Donald Tusk announced at the 18th EU-Ukraine Summit in Brussels that Ukraine had fulfilled all EU requirements for it to obtain a visa-free regime, and a deal was finally cut last week.

Now that a deal was reached, the EU will officially allow Ukrainians and Georgians to visit the bloc freely, without any visa requirement. The two former Soviet Republics will join the more than 50 countries the EU has visa-free deals with, including the United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil and Israel. EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn also said: “Happy that our tireless work pays off! EU must now urgently grant well-deserved visa free travel for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens”. Agustín Díaz de Mera, Member of European Parliament, said that the deal “will facilitate the immediate consideration of the two visa liberalisation proposals for Georgia and Ukraine”.

Snap-back clause

The move comes as a targeted measure to make travel rules easier for new countries, but includes a clause that involves a new snap-back procedure on visa-waivers. Indeed, under the terms agreed last week, the bloc will be able to freeze visa-free entry agreements if there is a sudden increase in the number of people from that country staying illegally in the 28 member state-bloc.

Also, any visa-free entry can be frozen if there is a proliferation in asylum applications, or if the non-EU country denies to take back people whose refugee requests are refused by the EU. It is also important to specify that the visa-free travel permits applies Ukrainian citizens travelling to the EU, as well as for EU citizens when travelling to the territory of Ukraine, for a period of 90 days stay in any 180-day period, but don’t allow foreign citizens to take jobs in the bloc.

The Dutch knot

The deal also came amid high pressure in the Netherlands for Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government to ratify a broader EU economic and trade pact with Ukraine. The Netherlands is indeed the last country to ratify the agreement, and it is facing fierce internal criticism, since many people say the deal is not respecting April’s referendum, whose result was against closer ties with Ukraine.

As reported by The European Sting back then, indeed on April 6, 61.1% of the Dutch voters rejected a EU-Ukraine pact on tighter political and economic ties, despite a very low turnout (32.2%). Since then, the non-binding referendum has sparked a heated debate in the country, as many people believed the deal could lead to the Netherlands having to provide financial or even military support to Ukraine.

Veto risk?

The question is more than ever hot, as shown by PM Rutte in an interview with the Financial Times, last week. Mr. Rutte indeed outlined his demands for a decision signed by the EU to the prestigious British newspaper, making clear that the “association agreement” will not create a “defence guarantee for Ukraine” or be a step towards its eventual membership of the bloc, as reported on the Internet.

“If we do not get this we will put a law to parliament the next day, which will state that we will not ratify the association agreement”, Mr. Rutte reportedly said. “We are working on addressing the concerns that were raised in the referendum”, PM Rutte added during his interview last week.

Populist views

The question is particularly important as after last year’s refugee crisis, EU governments have become particularly nervous about giving free pass to make visits to the EU easier. Eurosceptic and nationalistic movements across Europe have also largely demonstrated against any measure to open the doors to an un-regulated, additional flow of immigrants. However, no big issues should be expected on the way to a final approval of the EU-Ukraine deal.

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that an influential Dutch foreign-policy committee called for the Dutch government to push ahead with the EU-Ukraine pact anyway, despite April’s “no” vote. “Preserving European unity is the best answer to a Russian foreign policy aimed at destabilising Europe’s borders,” the advisory council of international affairs reportedly said.

Moreover, the Slovak Interior Minister and President of the Council Robert Kalinak talked about “credibility” of the Union’s visa liberalisation policy being at risk if the deal wasn’t ratified. The President of the European Council Donald Tusk welcomed the agreement, and said on his official Twitter profile that he expects a “final stretch towards visa free travel for Ukraine and Georgia”.

According to the European Parliament’s agenda, a final vote should approve the visa-free regime for 45 million Ukrainians, as well as 5 million Georgians, by the end of January 2017. EU leaders are expected to further discuss the deal this week, during the next EU leaders meeting in Brussels this Thursday.

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