Ukraine-EU summit: When will visa-free travel become reality
It is still nearly a month to go for the 18th Ukraine-European Union summit. President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko is positive that the documents on granting Ukraine a visa-free regime will be signed and ratified by the European Parliament ahead of the Summit. However, it is too early to claim victory on this issue.
Ukraine-EU summit postponed twice this year. First, by agreement of both parties, it was postponed from May to September (this was due to the uncertainty regarding the consequences of the referendum in the Netherlands on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and pending a Brexit vote in the UK). However, in September, the summit was postponed once again. Sources in diplomatic circles explained this with the need to ensure concrete results, including the decision approved by European institutions to grant Ukraine a visa-free status.
On September 26 the relevant committee of the European Parliament voted for putting Ukraine in the list of countries with which the EU introduces a visa-free regime, as well as for the opening of negotiations between the three institutions (European Parliament, European Commission, and European Council) on the visa-free regime for Ukraine.
A few weeks ago, the official information has finally popped up on the European Council website -- the 18th Ukraine-EU summit will be held in Brussels November 24. The European Union will be represented by European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko will represent Ukraine. According to the announcement, the visa regime for Ukrainians will be the top issue on the summit’s agenda.
Judging by the rhetoric, despite past failures, Ukrainian officials this time are convinced of the success of the summit. Petro Poroshenko went further to say in an interview with prominent Ukrainian TV channels that all documents on granting Ukraine its visa-free regime with the EU would be signed and ratified by the European Parliament before November 24.
Despite the fact that the president’s statement regarded only the adoption of legislation on visa liberalization with Ukraine by the European Parliament, the Ukrainian president’s presidential press service published a message titled "Ukraine will receive a visa-free regime late November." This drew the attention of a public organization Europe without barriers. "This is either the lack of professionalism of staff, who wrote a title that gained publicity, or in this way the higher officials were trying to show that Ukrainians have been waiting for quite a long time," said analyst Kateryna Kulchytska.
In her opinion, the positive vote of the European Parliament ahead of the summit is really possible, however, it is the maximum Ukraine can get. Considering that the EP decision does not finalize the visa liberalization process, it is unlikely that Ukraine will get a visa-free regime in November.
According to Kulchytska, after the European Parliament votes, the EU Council will have to vote as well, and then the appropriate decision shall be published in the Official Journal of the European Union and enter into force on the 21st day after the publication. In addition, the Ukrainian diplomats cannot be convinced that the EU Council will vote positively, however they don’t have any tools to influence the Council, unfortunately. The expert from Maidan of Foreign Affairs Foundation Oleksandr Khara says Ukraine lacks even technical possibilities to influence the decision of the EU Council. "Ukrainian diplomacy is not strong, it can be effective in some cases, but not systematically," he says.
In turn, political analyst Sergey Taran said that Europe had already switched on the mechanism of granting Ukraine a visa-free regime and there was no reason to believe that it may not reject the move. "All political forces of Europe are united, saying that Ukraine had fulfilled its part of commitments," says Taran. According to him, the European Union is a highly bureaucratized structure, and it always takes long to pass decisions. In addition, the analyst recalls that the EU had never talked about the timing of this process.
The European community shuns Ukraine
It should be noted that the issue of visa liberalization for Ukraine and Georgia also depends on the so-called visa waiver suspension mechanism. Currently, this mechanism has not yet been adopted. On May 20, 2016, the interior ministers of the EU agreed their position on the so-called emergency mechanism for suspension of a visa-free travel with the third countries. If necessary, it could be applied to block further visa-free travel. That is, for example, if so happens that a large number of citizens of a country, which was just granted a visa-free travel, will start abusing EU immigration law, the visas can be re-introduced, for a six- month period.
Despite the statement of Hugues Mingarelli, head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine, that developing such a suspension mechanism is not related to Ukraine, the Ukrainian experts believe that European community remains anxious regarding Ukraine.
According to Kulchytska, European countries that allocate significant budgets for social assistance to refugees (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Sweden) remember the sad experience of the Balkan countries and beware that the Ukrainians will also abuse the visa-free regime.
Oleksandr Khara shares the thought that the Europeans are anxious over Ukraine, Although, in his words, their concerns are unfounded. "The war has been ongoing for three years here, we have over two million internally displaced persons, but Ukraine still hasn’t become a threat to Europe. We are no source of illegal immigrants, as is the case with the Syrians and representatives of North Africa," said the diplomat.
According to Kulchytska, the Ukrainians can also profit from this visa waiver suspension mechanism. "The mechanism will take into account not only migration risks but also progress on reforms. We can put pressure on our government when it tries to turn back reforms, for example, reorganizing the country’s anti-corruption agencies. If the Ukrainian government does so, the EU will suspend our visa-free travel until the situation changes," she said.
In turn, Khara does not believe that this suspension mechanism can serve as "an instrument of pressure" on the Ukrainian authorities. The expert compares it with Russian sanctions that "Putin introduced against the Western countries, but it’s the Russians who suffer." "If you need to have a leverage against those who might slow down reform or the fight against corruption, I would introduce restrictions on travel with diplomatic and service passports," the expert said.
Visa policy as an element of diplomacy
The experts voice no Specific forecasts for the implementation of all stages of the procedure for obtaining a visa-free regime due to a considerable number of factors that can influence the situation.
Kulchytska says there are many EU member states and many political forces whose actions are difficult to predict. Moreover, even in Ukraine, something can go wrong, or example a hypothetical failure of electronic declaration efforts may worsen the situation.
In turn, Serhiy Taran recalls that the visa policy has always been a part of diplomacy in the European Union. Visa liberalization for Ukraine, in particular, is tied to implementing specific reforms.
However, in his opinion, the EU rhetoric on reform in Ukraine is quite typical. "I want to emphasize that, in fact, Europe’s pressure on Ukraine is many times less than what the EU dictated for Eastern and Central Europe when they carried out reforms in the 1990s. Brussels simply told them what to do and then controlled the implementation… Poland and the Czech Republic coped faster, while Romania and Bulgaria were doing this very slowly," says Taran.
However, Ukrainian authorities still should not call specific dates for the alleged start of a visa-free regime, as it's only teasing and frustrating people. "I am surprised by confidence that our officials, including the president, show when assuring the Ukrainian nation in getting a visa-free regime by specific dates..." Oleksandr Khara said, adding that such things do not depend on Ukraine.
According to him, the Ukrainian side has done everything required, so now the situation depends entirely on the technical aspects and the political will of the other side.
In turn, Serhiy Taran said that the optimistic rhetoric of certain politicians holding the negotiations, including the president of Ukraine, is a necessary part of the talks. "This element aims to convince the western side that we need a visa regime and we have fulfilled everything. Those who hold talks are required to say so. Had they said different, that would downgrade their negotiating position," said the analyst.
In general, not much depends on Ukraine in this matter today. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian diplomacy is unable to influence the process, neither can it speed up the decision-making process at the European institutions. "We would like to see visa-free travel possible early 2017, but we cannot say exactly, because there are many objective factors," Kulchytska says. Therefore, the experts explain that naming the specific date of Ukraine getting its visa-free regime is even dangerous. After all, when on November 24 it is suddenly made clear that the prospects of a visa-free travel are once again deferred, the public will be extremely irritated. By the way, it is possible that the opposition forces will try to make use of this public frustration.