By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — EU foreign ministers reached a political agreement on Wednesday (31 August) to fully suspend a visa facilitation agreement with Moscow, making it harder and more costly for Russian citizens to enter the EU while strengthening the support for border countries to pursue a common regional approach.
“We agreed on (…) full suspension of the EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters after a two-day informal meeting in Prague.
“This will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states. It’s going to be more difficult, it’s going to take longer.”
The full suspension of the 2007 visa facilitation agreement, which was partially suspended after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, will mean longer waiting times and elevated costs (from €35 to roughly €80) for Russian tourists.
New visas will be granted on the basis of an individual assessment, on a case-by-case basis, while the issue of existing visas would require a “common approach”, Borrell said, adding that EU member states will task the European Commission to “examine this complex situation and provide guidelines”.
“We don’t want to cut ourselves off from Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine, we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Russian civil society,” Borrell said.
Furthermore, according to the political agreement, “passports issued by Russian authorities in occupied territories in Ukraine will not be recognised”, he added.
Diplomats said ministers could not agree immediately on a blanket ban of travel visas for Russians as member states were split on the issue.
Borrell said the substantial increase in border crossings from Russia into the EU since mid-July “has become a security risk for these neighbouring states”.
Many Russians travelled to the EU for shopping “as if no war was raging in Ukraine”, he said, adding that member states agreed “it cannot be business as usual”.
Around one million Russian citizens have legally entered the EU since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, with roughly two-thirds entering through Estonia and Finland, according to the EU’s border agency Frontex.
Both countries are part of the EU’s border-free Schengen area so once Russians cross into the EU with a Schengen visa, they are free to travel around most of Europe.
Before the meetings, the Baltic countries and Poland, supported by the Nordics, had threatened unilateral action if the EU failed to agree to ban Russian tourists but others, including Germany and France, pushed for more moderation in the bloc’s approach.
In Wednesday’s discussions, several ministers met for separate talks to work out the wording for a compromise agreement and avoid an East-West divide in the measures, EU officials said.
In the end, the political agreement presented by Borrell has been mostly thrashed out by ministers from Germany, the Netherlands and Lithuania.
Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland had written a joint statement asking the European Commission to propose measures to “decisively decrease the flow of Russian citizens into the European Union and the Schengen area”.
They also warned they would be considering introducing “national-level temporary measures” to limit the number of Russian citizens entering the bloc across their borders.
Speaking after the meeting, Borrell said that member states would have a wide range of measures they can take concerning Russian visa issuance and border controls, as long as they conform with the EU’s Schengen Border Code that lays down border rules.
The ministers’ joint position read: “Given the challenging implications for the bordering countries, we acknowledge that measures can be taken at the national level, to restrict entry into the EU in conformity with the EU Schengen Border Code.”
This essentially gives EU endorsement to countries bordering Russia to come up with a “regional solution” to the issue of Russian citizens crossing their borders.
Visas have always been the prerogative of each EU member state but the latest wording, making this entirely clear, has strengthened the position of those countries that already decided to implement unilateral measures in the past weeks.
In accordance with the EU’s Schengen Border Code, they in any case are allowed to refuse entry for security reasons to Russians with a visa, if they are a “threat to public policy, internal security, public health or the international relations” of said country.
A win for countries bordering Russia, the step is set to be followed by a meeting of foreign and interior ministers of Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, probably as soon as the end of this week, to agree on a common approach.
Diplomats from the region said they expect full scrutiny of visas for Russians at border checkpoints.