The issue on simplification of visa regime with Schengen countries (majority of EU members, Switzerland and Norway) has been swirling for years. The first significant simplification was introduced in 2008, when some categories of Ukrainian citizens (students, journalists, etc.) were granted somewhat simplified entry. In the last years, the talks are being held within the preparation to the Association agreement.

On the way towards simplification

For example, in July of 2012 Kyiv and Brussels signed an agreement, expanding the list of categories eligible for getting visas under simplified procedure. The matter concerns multiple entry visas for relatives of EU citizens, international transportation drivers and people, accompanying patients for treatment. Moreover there have been introduced four more categories eligible for getting single-entry visas under simplified procedure: public activists, participants of conferences and cultural events: members of religious organizations: participants of cross-border cooperation programs with the EU. Holders of biometric passports will have visa free entry. The European Parliament may ratify the agreement already in March.

In 2012, Kyiv almost finished adopting documents within the first stage of the Action Plan on liberalization of visa regime with the EU. At the coming February summit in Brussels, Ukrainian authorities intend to negotiate on switching to the second stage of the Action Plan. At this stage, the European partners will control the implementation of adopted changes. According to MP Volodymyr Vecherko, Ukraine must prove that the adopted reforms are economically viable and efficient. After this, according to the procedure, the EP may introduce changes to the Schengen Code to cancel visa regime for Ukrainian citizens.

The future talks do not promise to be easy. Thus, in February EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule stated that Ukraine lacked several legislative acts to compete the first stage of the Action Plan. "The action plan contains a specific list that clearly defines what kind of legislation, what kind of steps must be taken for the EU member states to be able to provide Ukraine a visa free regime for the Schengen countries." In turn, foreign minister of Ukraine Leonid Kozhara specified that the Verkhovna Rada had already registered five draft bills, necessary for liberalization of visa regime, while another two draft laws had already been adopted.  "I hope Ukrainian parliament will consider the whole pack of draft bills before the February summit," the minister said.

Speaking about requirements set by the EU, former MP Taras Chornovil says Europe is not eager to simplify the access to its territories. According to the politician, the matter concerns proper social rights and economic situation in the country, which will guarantee that open borders will not result into mass migration.

Slovak initiative

Meanwhile, separate Schengen countries are taking individual steps. Since January 2013, Slovakia has started to issue long-term Schengen visas to Ukrainians. As a result, the number of visas, issued by the diplomatic missions of Slovakia in Kyiv and Uzhgorod, has increased drastically.
In January, Slovak diplomats gave six thousand visas to Ukrainians, which is almost twice as much as in December. Moreover, Bratislava has expanded the number of categories of people, who can apply for multiple entry visas, having included business travel and tourism in the list.

Under the rules, if a person has never been in a country – party to the Schengen agreement, he will receive a single-entry visa for a period from six months to two years. If he has already had the Schengen visa, he can be issued multiple entry visa for two - five years, Consul General of Slovakia in Uzhgorod Janka Burianova explained.

Most probably, the main motivation of such step is to attract more tourists for skiing seasons. Indeed, Slovak diplomats admit that for a month of the new rules, Slovak tour operators and hotel owners have already felt the influx of Ukrainian tourists. However, experts assume there may be a broader perspective: a step forward on the eve of February summit. Director of the Research center for civil society problems Vitaly Kulik believes that this initiative has been agreed with official Brussels. "The EU is a serious organization, not some mickey mouse company. I believe the interests of Slovakia as a tourist country coincide with the interests of the whole European Union."

In turn, former foreign minister Volodymyr Ohryzhko believes that the Slovak initiative is the first fruit, which will lead to the border free relations between European peoples. "Ukraine has managed to simplify issues if not with the whole Union then at least with its separate members. I welcome such step, taken by the Slovakian party, and I think other European countries should follow the example and issue multiple entry visas for two - five years as well."

As a reminder, Poland was the first to simplify the visa procedure for Ukrainian citizens, reducing the list of documents required for obtaining the visa. "The number of illegal migrants has not grown, but what has grown is currency inflow. Ukrainians do not mind to spend money in Schengen countries," Taras Chornovil points out.

It means that other European countries also have motivations for similar exemptions. Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Center for peace, conversion and external policy of Ukraine, confirms that Modern Schengen law, including Schengen Code, allows applying such liberal visa policy. "The matter is that not all Schengen countries use this possibility and all because of different political approaches and attitude towards our country and its people." As known, Austria and Greece are considered the most difficult visa countries. However, Ukrainians have regular problems with obtaining Italian, French and other Schengen visas. The full realization of the Action Plan on liberalization of visa regime requires more time. Thus, initiatives of separate countries are an important intermediate link for further process.

Who is next?

However, the things are not so easy, experts admit. Leading tourist countries of the EU (Spain, Italy, France, Austria) still fear legalized migration, especially when there are hundreds of thousands of our migrant workers already working in Mediterranean states, Sushko notes. Even former Baltic USSR states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania follow the same scenario. Travelers say that getting visa in the Baltic countries is even more complicated than in Poland or Germany.

According to the political scientists, leadership of European countries believes that advantages of Ukrainian tourists' inflow are incomparable with the risks for national labour markets. "Yes, the situation will not change immediately, but it does not mean we should stop trying. Besides, Euro-2012 championship has proved that Ukraine is not a wild country, and thousands of people have seen for themselves that our country is a European area. As for the Baltic countries, after the collapse of USSR their leaders try to distance themselves from the soviet past, and sometimes go too far, especially when it concerns former republics. However, it looks likes Lithuania, for example, is undergoing change in political elite (after the parliamentary elections), and it is quite possible that this country will become friendlier to us," Kulik says.

Lithuania, however, publicly supports European ambitions of Kyiv. Thus, Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine Pyatras Vaitekunas told ForUm recently that Lithuania stands for implementation of separate regulations of the Association agreement between Ukraine and the EU even before its official coming into force. The diplomat specified that before complete implementation of the agreement, the EU might introduce separate political resolutions and bilateral free trade area. "Essentially and technically we are ready to implement exemptions, similar to Slovak," he assured.
Ohryzhko adds that as of today the countries defending Ukraine's visa interests are Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Czech Republic. As we can see, this list repeats to some extent the list of countries, which have already simplified visa procedure for Ukrainians. According to the diplomat, the next country to take the step is Czech Republic, "where there are also ski resorts and other interesting tourist places." In turn, our Foreign Ministry must also take steps to accommodate our partners, including official visits at the highest level and initiatives on simplification of visa procedure. In the Czech embassy, though, we got the runaround, like simplification of visa regime is possible, but only in accordance with the policy of the European Union and the Action Plan.

Therefore, the ambassador of Hungary Mihály Bayer confirmed that his country was ready to take steps on visa simplification. "More than 42% of Hungarian visas are issued in Ukraine, and it proves our support of Ukraine's European aspirations."

At the same time, there is a "Scandinavian" group of EU countries, which stands against rapprochement with Kyiv. This group includes Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. Only Sweden embassy agreed to talk to us on this issue. ForUm was told that the possibility of visa exemptions is not under consideration for the moment. Germany, for example, holds intermediate position. It does not favor much visa liberalization for Ukraine, but treats visa applicants correctly and adequately. If you, for example, do not have the full pack of required documents, the embassy will kindly ask you to bring the missing ones and will not deny you visa immediately, as some other embassies do. Moreover, several European countries have formed a single visa application center to simplify the procedure for applicants.

So, there is certain progress, and though fast changes should not be expect, there is a chance that this year other countries will follow Slovak example and will make certain exemptions for Ukrainian visa applicants. And if the dialogue on the Action Plan continues, already in 2014 we may have improved simplifications of visa regime.   

Andriy Boyarunets


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