Visa-free saga continues / Photo from UNIAN

Endless visa lib saga

The Ukrainians have spent this whole year expecting the long-awaited final move by the European Union officials and finally be granted a visa-free travel across the Schengen Zone. Now the year is coming to an end, but the introduction of a visa-free regime for Ukraine keeps being delayed, while the Ukrainian citizens' frustration with the European promises seems to have reached its critical point.

Visa-free saga continues / Photo from UNIAN

The epic of visa liberalization for Ukraine had begun long before 2016. However, initially, it was more about the signing of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, while the issue of visa lib was only voiced in the context of that deal.

"I guarantee you, I promise you that from January 1, 2015 you will be traveling to Europe without a visa," the then-MP and now President Petro Poroshenko said back in April 2014 year. Naturally, the visa waiver was not the least issue in his presidential campaign.

However, this year was the most memorable in terms of the frequency of forecasts regarding visa liberalization. In 2016, Mr Poroshenko several times named concrete dates for the completion of the visa lib process. And each time, he was wrong.

It is interesting that, despite the fact that the issue of presidential promises of a visa-free regime has become mainstream, the actual visa free travel to the EU is deemed really important by less than half of Ukrainians. According to the November survey by Rating sociological group, only 13% of respondents said the EU visa waiver was very important and another 26% found it simply “important”. In turn, 37% of respondents believe visa liberalization is totally unimportant, while 20% said it was simply “unimportant”.

Anyway, Ukrainian politicians were not forced to voice any dates whatsoever. It should be recalled that the discussions over the visa lib began following the approval by the European Commission December 18, 2015, of a positive report on the implementation by Ukraine of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan. The document wrote that in early 2016, the European Commission would propose to the Council of Europe to lift visa requirements for Ukrainians. And it seems that this very document prompted the Ukrainian political elite (even more so, on holiday eve) to argue that the visa-free regime for Ukrainians would be enforced as early as 2016.

Problematic issues

However, at the beginning 2016, old problems have not gone anywhere. On the contrary, some new ones have added up. First, the draft state budget-2016 saw a provision on postponement of e-declarations until January 1, 2017 (one of the basic VLAP requirements said that the provision had to be enforced in 2016), then the Verkhovna Rada was for a long time unable to vote necessary "visa-free package of bills", including on setting up the National Agency for Corruption Prevention. When Ukraine officials finally managed to resolve all internal disputes on the issue, certain international events further hindered the visa waiver for Kyiv: those were the referendum in the Netherlands, a migratory crisis, and Brexit. They all rocked the already unstable boat of Ukraine’s visa-free prospects.

Despite the fact that on April 20, 2016, the European Commission formally proposed to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe to lift visa requirements for Ukrainians, the EU began to talk about the need for the so-called "visa waiver suspension mechanism" aimed at ensuring that the countries which have been granted visa liberalization continue to meet the necessary criteria. In other words, the EU just wanted to get some leverage against certain countries that might bear a migration threat to Europe.

The European Parliament and the Council of Europe could not come to an agreement on this mechanism for quite a while. However, even this nuance did not deprive the Ukrainian political elite of their optimism.

In particular, the political establishment pinned great hopes on the EU-Ukraine summit, scheduled for November 2016. "I am convinced that the documents on granting Ukraine a visa-free regime will be signed and ratified by the European Parliament, there is no doubt in that. I can even say the deadline – November 24, since a Ukraine-EU summit will be held November 24, and we agreed that all the documents would have been ready for this summit," Petro Poroshenko said in an interview with the Ukrainian TV channels.

But both the president and the Ukrainian citizens found themselves frustrated: the visa issue was not put on the agenda of the plenary session of European Parliament in November.

"Compromise" solution

Of course, in spite of all these difficulties, some European countries expressed their loyalty to the visa-free aspirations of Ukraine. Such headlines were popular in some foreign media as: "The EU ambassadors greenlighted Ukraine", "France supports visa lib for Ukraine", "Hungarian Foreign Ministry requires visa lib for Ukraine"…

Finally, the required "visa waiver suspension mechanism" was adopted, while the EU Member States adopted a decision that would have opened the way for the ratification of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. But at the moment, this decision looks more like a mockery.

The thing is that some provisions have been adjusted in accordance with the requirements of the Netherlands. Therefore, for example, the Agreement confirms EU cooperation with Ukraine on security, but it does not contain obligations for the EU and its Member States of collective security guarantee or other military assistance or help to Ukraine.

Besides, the agreement confirms the EU's commitment to support reform in Ukraine, but it does not provide for any additional funding from the Member States.

The document also states that the Agreement does not grant the Ukrainian citizens or EU citizens, respectively, the right to live and work freely in the territory of Member States or Ukraine ...

The European Council notes that the Decision set out in the Annex is legally binding on the 28 Member States of the European Union, and may be amended or repealed only by common accord of their Heads of State or Government. It will take effect once the Kingdom of the Netherlands has ratified the agreement and the Union has concluded it. Should this not be the case, the Decision will cease to exist.

It should be noted that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has already called for the Netherlands to complete all the necessary procedures for the Agreement to enter into force as soon as possible "We commend the efforts of the EU leaders to agree on the decision that paves the way towards long-awaited finalization of the Association Agreement ratification by the EU. It is a necessary step to achieve our common goal – to secure the AA," the president wrote on Facebook.

Nothing good, nothing bad

In turn, First Vice Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Iryna Gerashchenko was not as tolerant as the head of state. According to her, the actions of the European institutions that "delay visa liberalization unreasonably" cause frustration and resentment. "Now the Ukrainian society is losing confidence in the EU while the guilt and responsibility for this lies with the EU," she said.

According to the MP, the EU teaches Ukraine to be a responsible partner, but "everything that is now happening in Brussels and other European capitals is a great historical mistake."

The moves of the EU institutions also caused mixed reactions among the Ukrainian expert community. For example, chairman of the "Maidan of Foreign Affairs' Foundation Bohdan Yaremenko, on the one hand, hopes that the published decision will help complete the process of ratification of the Association Agreement. And, on the other hand, he is convinced that this decision is, in fact, an insulting and discriminatory document, seriously changing the philosophy, content, and atmosphere of cooperation between Ukraine and the EU.

"The very fact of the existence of such a document is negative. In one degree or another, it defines or even performs the already signed and almost ratified agreement. Why negotiate an agreement over the years and fight over its every point and proposal, only to see that after the signing the contents of the agreement start to be clarified?" he said.

According to the diplomat, to save face, Ukraine needs to adopt a similar "mirror" executive decision stating that the Association Agreement does not impose on Ukraine obligations in all areas listed in the decision. Otherwise, according to Yaremenko, Kyiv will remain Europe’s "whipping boy".

In turn, scientific director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, a political analyst on international affairs Oleksandr Sushko sounds more optimistic. According to him, the document neither increases, nor reduces Ukraine’s opportunities. The political scientist calls the EU decision "a chewing gum made of political technology for the Dutch Parliament, so that it swallows ratification, despite the April 6 referendum outcome."

At the same time, the expert has no firm assurance that the Netherlands will go for it. That’s because, in his opinion, they firstly care about the results of their own upcoming elections, rather than the EU's reputation or the attitudes in Ukraine. "Yesterday's document lists in a concentrated form the things that were never put in the Agreement (the status of the candidate for EU membership, collective defense, free employment, and access to EU structural funds). This is done in order to calm fears that those Ukrainians suffering from poverty, as a result of the Association Agreement, will sit on the neck of the Dutch, already exhausted with chronic Euroskepticism, and moreover - make them go to war with Putin," Sushko said.

Anyway, the Europeans have not even decided on a concrete date of the EP vote the visa liberalization package for Ukraine.

What is Ukraine to do in this situation? Perhaps, the people should stop dreaming about a life "in the visa free era", stubbornly waiting for some new date in the calendar, and amusing themselves with the delusional idea that one of these dates will bring sudden and abrupt changes. In the end, it’s not the EP or the EU Council which really needed all that legislation adopted and reforms launched. It was Ukraine.

Iryna Shevchenko

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