Contacts between People: EU Visa Policies towards the Eastern Partnership Countries

By Elena Shuba

At the conference 'Contacts between people: EU visa policies towards the Eastern Partnership countries', 12 October 2012, Yerevan (Armenia) Photo by ACGRC

On 12 October, the Analytical Centre on Globalisation and Regional Cooperation (Armenia) hosted a conference entitled “Contacts between people: EU visa policies towards the Eastern Partnership countries”. The event was organised in cooperation with the Stefan Batory Foundation (Poland) and the Coalition for the European Continent Undivided by Visa Barriers and was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. During the conference successes and challenges of the EU Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative together with the prospects and barriers for visa facilitation and liberalisation for the EaP countries were presented and discussed. The event gathered experts from both EU and Eastern Partnership countries, Armenian students, media and civil society representatives.

In the first session discussion focused on the impact of the EaP initiative and the transformation processes occurring in the EaP countries in their aspiration to approximate to European standards and values. The need for simplification of the visa regime between the EU and the EaP countries was the focus of the second panel discussion. According to the experts, simplification of the visa regime and even its complete abolition in terms of short-term stay in Europe, will contribute to the further development of bilateral relations, especially in the sphere of science and student exchange. In addition, the rigid framework of the current visa regime with the EU, humiliates citizens of EaP countries which, in turn, contributes to tension and frustration in the perception of Europe in those countries.

In this view, the organisers of the conference, Stepan Grigoryan, Chairman of the Board of the Analytical Centre on Globalisation and Regional Cooperation, and Joanna Fomina, coordinator of the Friendly EU Border Project and the Visa-free Europe Coalition, offered to look at EU visa policies on Eastern Partnership countries from the perspective of people-to-people relations, often divided by visa barriers.

The first session opened with the presentation of Alžběta Chmelařová, a researcher from the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, the Czech Republic. The expert focused on the successes that the EaP initiative has achieved and the challenges it is facing. According to the speaker, the EaP turned out to be a “normative failure”. It created a disillusion among people whose expectations are not being met by the EU promises. In general, the expert believes that the EaP is a weak instrument for transformation and is not comprehensible for ordinary citizens. At the same time, “if you don’t see light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn’t mean it is not there”, commented Ms. Chmelařová. In her recommendations on how to improve the EaP instrument she suggested concentrating on youth, supporting the formal and informal education sectors and paying more attention to the fight against racism and nationalism, historical heritage, and frozen conflicts. 

Maryana Kuzio, Coordinator of Europe without Barriers from Kyiv, Ukraine, in her comments noted, that a large distance remains between different partner states in their progress towards visa free travel for their citizens. At the same time, estimation of the progress of the partner countries in implementation of certain standards is a very technical procedure. This is, for example, valid when we try to estimate the progress of two front-runner countries in the process of visa liberalisation - Moldova and Ukraine - which managed to open Visa Dialogues with the EU in 2010. Ms. Kuzio believes that more promises should be given to the EaP countries to meet the expectations of those citizens who clearly support a European choice for their countries. In general, liberalisation of people-to-people contacts via visa free travel with the EU is an issue of high importance for the societies of the EaP countries.

Elena Shuba, Project Manager from the Office for a Democratic Belarus in Brussels, Belgium, concluded the discussion in the first session stressing that when the EU was launching the EaP initiative it couldn’t expect the same speed of reforms that has been achieved in Central Europe. Unfortunately, it seems to be a “mission impossible“ to overcome the Soviet heritage of the EaP countries in the less than 4 years in which the EaP initiative is operating. Due to this and other reasons the EaP cannot yet be called a success story. The speaker suggested searching for other approaches and reformulating EU policy in such a way that every EaP country interested in conducting the reforms would have the stimuli to do so. Among the recommendations mentioned were to continue consistently and coherently working with civil society of the EaP countries; focus on youth facilitating student exchange programmes and internships; facilitate the dialogue and exchange of best practices between all EaP countries; enhance coordination of the EaP policy instruments; keep up efforts to increase the awareness about the EU, its values and the costs and benefits of the “European choice” for the EaP countries.

During the second session panellists discussed the prospects and barriers for visa facilitation and liberalisation in the EaP countries. Joanna Fomina focused on the progress made by the EaP countries towards visa liberalisation with the EU. She explained that Armenia is getting very close to finalising talks on the visa facilitation and readmission agreements, and when they are signed the most important stage will begin – the monitoring of implementation of those agreements. Ms. Fomina spoke about the phases of the Action plans for visa liberalisation offered to Ukraine and Moldova. The Action plan on visa liberalisation sets a series of benchmarks on four 'blocks' of relevant issues, with the view to both the adoption of a legislative and policy framework (phase 1) and its effective implementation (phase 2), explained the expert. In 2012 both Ukraine and Moldova were supposed to implement the first phase of the plan, which focused mainly on legislative changes. According to Ms. Fomina Armenia, for example, could learn from Moldova or Ukraine in terms of the visa facilitation process. She also stressed that self-assessment of the progress and results is very important.

The next speaker, Eleonora Vergeer, a Policy Advisor on migration issues from the EU Advisory Group, gave a presentation on where Armenia stands in the visa facilitation and visa liberalisation processes with the EU. She explained that the negotiations on the visa facilitation and readmission agreements were officially launched in February 2012 and by now have almost reached the final stage. Ms. Vergeer listed the benefits that a visa-facilitation agreement can bring: making the application process for a short-term visa easier, faster and cheaper. She also spoke about the connotations of official terms explaining that “easier” in fact means the facilitation of visa application procedures for certain categories of citizens (journalists, students, sportsmen, others), while “faster and cheaper” applies to all visa applicants. “The road towards visa liberalisation is a long one and it is time to start work towards opening Visa Dialogue with the EU”, concluded Ms. Vergeer.

Iryna Sushko, Head of the Europe without Barriers public initiative in Kyiv, Ukraine, discussed the effectiveness of the visa facilitation agreement based on the results of independent monitoring of visa issuance by Schengen countries consulates in Ukraine. She suggested looking at the visa policy as at an area of public administration. In many cases people get their first impressions of the EU when they first go to the consulate to apply for a visa. The negative attitude towards them can break the image of the EU where everything is of a “high standard”, said the expert. Ms. Sushko stressed that often ordinary citizens are not fully aware of the procedures and opportunities listed in the EU visa code and therefore do not use the opportunity to benefit from them. Regarding the case of Armenia, Ms. Sushko suggested initiating the monitoring process already at this stage and expressed the opinion that the role of the civil society and expert community should be enhanced in this process. “Judging by the monitoring experience, it is crucial to see the real opportunities for facilitation of the visa application process included in the visa facilitation agreement that should be used by the citizens”, said the expert.

Expert presentations were followed by a discussion of visa practices by different consulates. Ukrainian experts presented a photo exhibition that was launched to draw the attention of the EU to the problem of the freedom of movement in Eastern Europe. Stepan Grigoryan concluded that “the fight for each particular visa case is of crucial importance if we want to change visa practices for the better”. All panellists agreed that visa facilitation and liberalisation processes make a real difference to people-to-people contacts and help to improve bilateral relations in all areas.