The thesis that the EU is perceived by citizens of Eastern Europe in the light of its visa policy towards them is hardly a new one. Indeed, for most applicants, a meeting with a consular officer constitutes their first opportunity to come face to face with those representing the EU. In this regard, the way in which this process is carried out can either contribute to a positive image of the European Union in the eyes of the outside world, or on the contrary it can significantly diminish the reputation of EU Member States, particularly when the visa application process could become, as stated by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, a “bureaucratic and costly nightmare.”
Obtaining a Schengen visa for citizens living outside of the EU was never an easy process, but the Polish Stephan Batory Foundation’s comparative analysis of the process for obtaining visas in four Eastern European countries Changes in Visa Policies of the EU Member States, New Monitoring Report revealed that with the adoption of the Schengen visa regime by new EU Member States in December 2007, the number of visas issued to Eastern Europeans decreased significantly. The application procedure was made all the worse by an often degrading and humiliating attitude experienced by applicants in consulates as well as by the bureaucratic approach encountered.
The position for Belarusians is particularly unfortunate as the volume of visas issued, for example, decreased the most – in 2008, Poland issued 73% fewer visas than in 2007, Lithuania - 52% fewer and Latvia - 34% less, says Batory Foundation’s report. Not only do Belarusian applicants have to pay nearly twice as much for a Schengen visa as do their neighbours (€60 compared to €35 for Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians), but they also have to go through a more complex and lengthy process when applying for visas. This state of affairs appears to be in contradiction with the European Union’s declarations to foster human contacts with the citizens of Belarus and largely bears witness to the inconsistency of the EU visa policy towards Belarus. It also demonstrates negative political implications insofar as the strict visa regime de facto takes away a chance to Europeanise Belarusians, as travelling to EU countries would make Belarusians more familiar with and receptive towards European values. At the same time, the enlargement of the Schengen zone has cut off easy travelling to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland for ordinary Belarusians, who are still largely cautious about their pro-European identity choice.
The year-long rapprochement between the European Union and the government of Belarus raises issues and expectations for Belarusians hoping to travel to Europe. Is there a chance in the near future that Belarusians will be paying and doing less to obtain a Schengen visa? How realistic is the likelihood of visa-free travel to Europe for Belarusians without any restrictions?
Belarus on the ‘black’ Schengen list
The EU Treaty of Amsterdam introduced the idea of establishing a “European area of freedom, security and justice,” which among other aspirations, envisaged the creation of a common territory without internal borders along with the establishment of a common external border. This development derived from the new perception of security threats in the sense that “a safe inside should be most effectively protected from an unsafe outside,” as a report from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) succinctly put it. Thus the control of external frontiers became a major objective of EU cooperation in justice and home affairs, and consequently the issue of visas took up an important role in the EU’s policy of effective and comprehensive border management.
The Amsterdam Treaty also transferred far-reaching competences on the issue of visas to the European Community, which in its turn developed a common visa policy for third country nationals. The heart of this common policy centred on Council Regulation No 539/2001 of 15 March 2001, listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing any EU external borders (the so-called “negative list”) and those whose citizens were exempt from that requirement (the “positive list”). Citizens of countries placed on the negative list were thus considered as potential security risks. Belarus was among the many other countries which comprised the ‘black’ list.
As the adoption of the EU visa regime in the form of Schengen regulations and rules was part of the acquis communautaire for the countries seeking accession, the new EU Member States were required to impose Schengen visas on citizens from neighbouring countries if those states were listed on the EU’s negative visa list. This resulted in disruption of socioeconomic and political relationships across border regions, where people had hitherto enjoyed a greater freedom of movement due to less severe visa requirements, and also created a potential for establishing new dividing lines in Europe. The EU recognised the negative impact that the new visa policy was having across Europe and became resolute in its endeavours to address the issue. This was particularly of concern as EU officials recognised that apart from the negative image that arose and the consequential restrictions on legitimate travel, the policy also failed to achieve its stated goals of preventing irregular immigration and organised crime.
There was thus a need for a new EU approach to security across the external borders and made the EU rethink its visa policy for neighbouring countries in terms of finding more effective tools to combat illegal migration without impeding the legitimate business and travel arrangements for individuals. One such tool proved to be the signing of visa facilitation and readmission agreements (VFRAs) with these external countries.
The road to VFRA
The new security policy was an attempt to balance internal security concerns and external stabilisation needs. In offering more relaxed travel conditions in exchange for the signing of a readmission agreement and reforming domestic justice and home affairs, the EU sought to press for reforms in neighbouring countries, while meeting a major source of discontent in these countries. Thus a readmission agreement was offering a better way to fight irregular migration by returning illegal migrants and failed asylum seekers to their home countries. Yet the EU had to overcome the difficulty of raising enough incentives with these neighbouring countries to sign such an agreement. In this sense, easing the restrictive visa regime was considered an effective means to achieve what both sides were seeking, and in the case of the Russian VFRA, for the first time a firm link between readmission and visas was established.
Currently the EU has VFRAs signed with the countries of the Western Balkans, Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. In the case of the Balkan countries, the legal basis derived from the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, which introduced the prospect of a liberalised visa regime once specific conditions had been met, followed by EC preliminary negotiations with each of the countries concerned and a commitment to enter detailed negotiations on the VFRA in 2006. This effectively served as a model to apply to the above ENP countries, on the basis that the country had an ENP Action Plan in force and met the required conditions (COM (2006) 726 final, Brussels).
In summary, VFRAs stipulate cheaper and easier conditions to travel, study and do business with the EU, while ensuring the repatriation of those who illegally entered the EU. Although the agreements differed slightly depending on the country, generally they related to the simplification of documentary evidence to be submitted in support of the visa application, issuing multiple-entry visas with a longer period of validity, waiving or reducing the handling fees for specific categories of citizens and setting deadlines for processing visa applications. Although a VFRA reduces the visa costs for all citizens (currently set at €35), the easing of the application procedure applies only to certain categories of applicants (such as business people, journalists, drivers of international cargo and passenger transportation services, pupils, students, scientists and some others), which creates the problem for the rest of the citizens being excluded from the simplified visa procedures. Of interest is also an observation of the above-mentioned CEPS’ study that whilst the VFRAs for the Western Balkans extended the facilitations to tourists, the agreements with Moldova, Russia and Ukraine contain no such provision.
An important component of all VFRAs is a provision establishing joint monitoring committees comprising EC officials and assisted by experts from the Member States and partner countries. These committees may recommend amendments to the present agreements and settle disputes arising from them, and as such provide a good mechanism for controlling and overseeing, and a fair and transparent visa application procedure.
As most of the VFRAs came into force in 2008, it is still too early to fully assess the quality of the implementation of the EC visa facilitation agreements, although some clear-cut advantages can already be seen. According to the Batory Foundation’s study, VFRAs increase the frequency of visa fee waivers while reducing the procedure’s length. This was confirmed in an April press release of the EC Delegation to Ukraine, which stated that the volume of Schengen visas issued to Ukrainians increased by 134% in 2008, and around a third of the applicants benefited from free visas. The Batory Foundation further noted that applicants from Moldova, Ukraine and Russia also received visas with a longer term of validity than did those applying in Belarus (92 and 58 days respectfully). The setting up of an EU Common Visa Application Centre in Chisinau under the VFRA framework also relieved citizens of the extra burden of visiting individual consulates, as it issues visas for seven EU Member States.
Where does Belarus stand?
The cost of a Schengen visa for Belarusians remains at €60, since Belarus and the EC have not concluded a visa facilitation agreement nor were there any grounds for doing so as Belarus does not have an ENP Action Plan in force, as required by EC Communication 726. Although Belarus is officially covered by the ENP, the democratic deficiencies in the country have prevented the initiation of serious dialogue. It is also questionable whether Belarus fully meets other pre-conditions set out in the Communication, such as addressing readmission, cooperating in fighting illegal immigration, and maintaining effective and efficient border. In view of the stipulations indicated above, addressing readmission seems to be of great importance in achieving the facilitation of visas, particularly bearing in mind that EC negotiations with Russia and Ukraine had started with discussions on readmission agreements for those countries.
The launch of the Eastern Partnership initiative in May this year has created a new legal framework and opportunity for a potential visa facilitation agreement for Belarus, as provided for in the bilateral track of the EaP engagement with the partner countries. Nevertheless, as was noted on several occasions by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for External Relations and ENP, such a track of cooperation with Belarus “does not exist.” This is the result of the complicated nature of relations between Belarus and the EU over the past 15 years. The ratification of Belarus’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EC and the ratification of Interim agreement were frozen in 1997. Naturally, without an adequate basic legal framework, Belarus cannot participate fully either in the EaP, or conclude agreements on readmission and visa facilitation. The recent improvement in Belarus-EU relations suggests, however, that a PCA between the EC and Belarus could be concluded relatively soon. As standard readmission clauses have been mandatory elements of all EC cooperation agreements since 1999, once Belarus has signed such an agreement with the EC, negotiations on readmission agreements should theoretically follow.
At present, discussions on reducing visa fees and simplifying application procedures for Belarusians have been confined to political deliberations. On the positive side, 2008 and 2009 have been marked by an increase in such preliminary discussions between the EU and Belarus. The European and individual Member State Parliaments have held debates and top Belarusian officials have started openly requesting progress on the current stalemate. For example, President Lukashenka requested Benita Ferrero-Waldner, during her June visit to Minsk, to consider lowering visa fees for Belarusians, while Foreign Minister Martynov also declared during the July EU troika meeting that progress on the facilitation of the existing visa arrangements is a clear priority for Belarus. The reaction of the Belarusian authorities is hardly surprising, if one considers the degree of discontent of Belarusian citizens knowing that they are paying almost twice as much for visas as their neighbours. It would be a clear advantage to the Belarusian authorities to demonstrate to its citizens how it has negotiated strongly on their behalf to achieve parity with visa facilitation arrangements. A VFRA would also ease travelling for officials themselves, as ‘members of official delegations’ is a category benefiting from the simplified travelling procedure, while the exemption of visa requirements for diplomats is standard practice in most VFRAs. The EU, however, maintains a cautious approach to the Belarusian position, indicating that the issue would need to be determined by all EU Member States and there would still be a need for Belarus to demonstrate significant progress in democratisation.
The principle of reciprocity inherent in the VFRA would also need to be taken into account in introducing any visa facilitation agreement insofar as lowering of visa fees for Belarusians would imply in return the lowering of fees for a Belarusian visa for Europeans (currently set at approximately €60). Currently the Council of Ministers of Belarus is considering the proposal of the Ministry of Sports and Tourism to grant visa waivers to tourists from the European Union. The Ministry of Sports and Tourism believes that the inflow of EU tourists to Belarus will be significant if Belarus cancels visa requirements and ensures good advertising of Belarusian attractions to tourists. Minsk is also awaiting a launch of a new large-scaled tourist project, which would envisage, among other things, daily tours in English around Minsk and outside the capital. However, it is questionable whether the Belarusian authorities are prepared to grant visa waivers to Europeans, bearing in mind the consequential reduction in visa revenues.
Is visa-free travel a possibility for Belarus?
The prospect of visa-free travel for Belarusians seems even more unrealistic. The degree of openness of the EU to Eastern European travellers, including Belarusians, can be judged by the clear references to a visa-free regime from the Eastern Partnership final Declaration, and although the Commission’s original proposal included the removal of visa requirements altogether (COM (2008) 823 final, Brussels), the document adopted at the Prague Summit (CEU (2009) 8435/09) offered partners a simplified visa application system, and “gradual steps towards full visa exemption” on a case-by-case basis and only as a “long-term goal”. Thus it remains to be seen to what extent a policy to liberalise visas will materialise.
At present, only the Western Balkans face a realistic prospect of visa-free travel, bearing in mind the status of these countries as ‘candidates’ or ‘potential candidates’ for EU membership. But even for them, it has been a long and difficult process, and currently only Macedonia has been found by the EU to meet the criteria for a visa-free regime. Each of the Western Balkan countries received a ‘roadmap’, defining the exact conditions that would need to be achieved to qualify for free travel which related to border management, document security and measures against organised crime. The requirements ranged from purely technical matters, such as the issue of passports with biometric data to the adoption and implementation of a package of laws and international conventions. The significant point is that the effective implementation of the VFRAs was a pre-condition for the success of any consequential negotiations on visa liberalisation.
Based on above the criteria, it seems clear that Belarus is a long way from any agreement on a visa-free travel regime with Europe. Even though there has been some progress in comprehensive border management through the ongoing TACIS/EC projects in the area, there has been little or no progress on the remaining conditions. On the other hand, even within the framework of the EaP’s mobility and security initiative, Belarus would have first to solve the problem of how to provide the same freedom of movement for people between itself and Russia and the EU before visa-free travel can be envisaged.
The only readily available prospect for easing existing travel restrictions within Europe for Belarus would be a new Visa Code, which would bring significant improvements for all visa applicants, whatever their nationality, including an obligation to give reasons for any refusal of a visa and to offer the possibility of inter alia an appeal process; harmonisation of forms; and a more precise definition of supporting documents. It would also reduce the visa fee for specific applicants, such as for children between six and eleven, and would eliminate visa fees for researchers and NGO representatives under 25. The Community Code on Visas was adopted by the Council of the European Union on 25 June and is already in force.
History shows that an EU visa policy can be an effective mechanism for initiating comprehensive reforms in external countries. In the case of Belarus, a visa policy is also one of the few tools available to the EU to encourage and engender political and social change in the country. Nevertheless, Belarus does not appear to garner sufficient interest or motivation of EU member states for the EU to break its bureaucratic rules and simplify visa application procedures for Belarusians. The EU considers visa facilitation conditional on political and social reforms within the country, although the introduction of the former can influence the latter process. In the long run, the real development of the EU Eastern policy will only take shape through the easing of contact between EU Member States and their neighbouring countries. In this context, the liberalisation of travelling conditions between the two could well be the first step on the way to achieving this goal.