On EU-Russia visa-free travel (Part 2)

This is a continuation of Part 1

EU member states differ widely not just in the application of visa procedures, but also on how fast the EU should move towards a visa-free regime withRussia. Russia and the EU apparently agreed on a set of common steps to undertake towards the visa free regime and should make the agreement public at their next summit in December. The ‘common steps’ are presumably supposed to be quite similar to the EU action plans on visa free travel offered to Moldova and Ukraine.

From an EU perspective there are two possible approaches to the issue of liberalising visas for Russia. One approach is to set the bar high (as the EU did in the Western Balkans), and demand not just improvement of border-management and security of documents, including biometric passports, but also wider and deeper reforms of the law-enforcement agencies, fight against corruption and improvements in the human rights record. Some officials in several EU member states, including Germany, suggest that the EU should link the EU offer of a visa-free regime to Russia to some political or security issues where the EU wants to see some progress. In such a case the EU would treat the offer of a visa-free regime to Russia as the highest possible prize for which Russia should sweat a lot. Under such an approach fighting corruption would minimize the dangers that the Russian passports might be acquired/bought by potential third country illegal migrants as a one-way ticket to the EU; and improving the human rights record and fighting torture would dry up the legitimate reasons for Russian to claim asylum status in the EU (data in Part 1). Finally, the EU then has to inspect and monitor Russian compliance with EU demands.

The problem is that such a strongly conditional approach has worked on Serbia, might work on Moldova, but is unlikely to work on Russia. The Russian elites have few problems in getting EU visas, and holders of diplomatic passports travel visa-free already (to Schengen, but not to the UK). They will not change the way Russia is governed and their positions in power for the sake of the average Russian’s possibility to travel visa-free to the EU. The EU is also unlikely to descend with fact-finding missions to see how the border is controlled between Russia and Kazakhstan or Mongolia, the way they checked Serbian-Bosnian border, or would check the Moldovan-Ukrainian borders. The EU member states are also not united enough in their application of visa policies to be able to leverage their joint influence over Russia. This offers ordinary the Russian state and ordinary Russians simply engage in ‘visa shopping’ rather than comply with EU conditions. The divergent visa policies of EU states described in Part 1 are proof of that.

An alternative approach is to liberalise the visa system as soon as possible in the hope that this will have a gradual transformational effect on Russian society. Proponents of such an approach argue that the visa-free regime with Russia should be treated as a tool of helping Russia to modernise. By opening borders, the argument goes, the EU will contribute to the modernisation of Russian society through greater and easier business, educational and cultural contacts with the EU for the Russian middle class. But of course there is little enthusiasm in the EU in being seen as offering such a present to Putin’s third presidency.

It is not that different member states adopt one of the two approaches (though they often lean towards one of them), but also different players within the same member state are quite divided: diplomats and the business community tend to favour a more liberal approach (see this position paper by the German Committee for Eastern Economic Relations or a study from the European Tour Operators Association), whereas law-enforcement agencies in the same states prefer a tougher approach.

Ultimately, the question is not whether to move towards a visa-free regime with Russia, but how quickly and under what conditions. Those who fear a relatively quick liberalisation of the visa regime have a point. An EU diplomat told me once that ‘Russia is so big – you can take a chance with visa free for Macedonia, but not with Russia’. An Estonian diplomat argued that ‘it is easy for Spaniards to push for visa free withRussia. They will get the rich oligarchs on the Spanish coast, and we will get the petty criminals from Pskov region’. With the current debate on immigration – most EU politicians have little to gain from a visa-free regime with Russia and a lot to loose in terms of public support in many EU countries.

Yet the current system does not work either. It penalises ordinary citizens, and its application is not uniform enough to give EU member states joint leverage over Russia. The conclusions is that in the short term what the EU needs is a middle way that reconciles the need to open up EU borders for legitimate travellers from Russia, while keeping a strong enough monitoring mechanism that would assuage reluctant EU member states. A European version of the Mexican system of ‘electronic visas‘ for Russians (and Ukrainians) could be such a solution that fits into the ‘smart borders‘ approach and could be applied to those who already had Schengen visas once. And in the mid-term, once the conditions of the ‘common steps’ are fulfilled, a fully fledged visa-free regime would follow.