The European Union’s executive body, the European Commission, gave Ukrainians an early Christmas present in December 2015 by officially backing plans to end visa restrictions on Ukrainians within the EU’s visa-free Schengen Zone. In order for the decision to become law, it now requires the backing of the European Parliament and each of the EU’s 28 member states. The confirmation process is expected to last between four and seven months, and comes without any guarantee of successful conclusion. However, the announcement of European Commission support means Ukrainians will in all likelihood secure visa-free travel at some point in summer 2016.
The European Commission stamp of approval came following a painstaking process that had seen Ukraine meet a long list of reform criteria in order to qualify for visa-free access. Numerous points on the reform checklist have yet to be fulfilled by Ukraine, but officials in Brussels decided in late 2015 that enough had been done to warrant recommending an end to visa restrictions.
End of the informal iron curtain?
News of the visa breakthrough was greeted with jubilation by many in Ukraine. President Poroshenko has made visa-free travel one of the symbolic cornerstones of his European integration strategy, arguing that visa-free access would provide ordinary Ukrainians with tangible evidence that the losses and sacrifices of the past two years have not been in vain. Visa restrictions have long been a sensitive issue for Ukrainians, with relatively high rejection rates, tough administrative requirements, and degrading application processes leading many to complain about the continued existence of what amounts to an informal iron curtain. Ukrainian access to the rest of Europe has actually deteriorated since the collapse of the original iron curtain in the early 1990s. The expansion of the EU in 2004 and the subsequent growth of the Schengen Zone in 2007 meant Ukrainians faced growing difficulties even when travelling to neighbouring former Warsaw Pact countries.
The timing of Ukraine’s visa breakthrough is unfortunate to say the least. EU member states are currently engaged in a heated debate over immigration sparked by the 2015 influx of approximately one million refugees from war-torn Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis has exasperated an already tense situation that has been steadily escalating since the start of the Arab Spring and the collapse of border controls in Libya in 2011. With European leaders under unprecedented pressure to stem the flow of immigrants from Africa and Asia, a lively debate can be expected over the desirability of granting an additional 45 million Ukrainians visa-free access to the EU.
These immigration concerns are unavoidable but arguably misplaced. The visa-free terms proposed for Ukraine will not include residency, social security or employment rights, meaning that any Ukrainians who wish to remain within the EU beyond the 90-day visa-free limit would have to do so illegally. Ukrainians prepared to live under such conditions within the EU are either already doing so, or would likely be able to find other ways of entering the Schengen Zone. In reality, the visa-free regime on offer would primarily mean more tourism travel and greater business interaction.
Easy access would strengthen EU ties
The advent of visa-free travel would have far-reaching implications for Ukrainian society. Greater access will break down cultural barriers and help to familiarize millions of Ukrainians with modern European standards while undermining the anti-EU myths and stereotypes promoted by Russian and pro-Kremlin media. Ukrainian businesses would also benefit from the ability to attend meetings, forums and trade events without having to go through the time-consuming and bureaucratic process of applying for a visa. This easy business access is particularly important given Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU and the need to develop new commercial relationships.
The benefits of visa-free EU access are also expected to stretch beyond the European Union itself. President Poroshenko has voiced hopes that the advent of visa-free travel to the European Union will lead to similar easing of visa barriers facing Ukrainians in a number of other countries. The Ukrainian leader cited South Korea and Mexico as examples, while also speaking of possible talks on visa liberalization with America, Canada and Australia.