Visa-free Europe: a matter of trust, solidarity and cooperation
Progress towards visa-free regime with the EU Eastern neighbours has become a potentially divisive issue for the EU members. Visa-regime liberalisation for the EaP countries has become almost an axiom for some European states, especially those having a border with the Eastern neighbours, and a conversation-stopper in the rest of Europe. The process is both technical and political and as such, it is highly susceptible to popular misconceptions, vulnerable to the changes in the international political climate as well as national political calendars. It is extremely important, thus, to alleviate popular fears and emphasise how beneficial the achievement of visa-free regime is both for the EU and for its Eastern neighbours.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the liberalisation of visa regime is that it is about economic migration. Much as we can debate the need of the EU countries for external labour force, visa liberalisation process covers only short-term (up to three months) stays without the right to enter the labour market or access the social security system. In other words, all we are talking about here is the possibility for EaP citizens to come to the EU for holidays, visit friends and family, or take part in conferences and seminars, without having to undergo the long, painful and often humiliating procedure of applying for a visa, which usually involves collecting tons of documents, including very sensitive information such as bank account details, waiting in queues and paying lots of money.
Another misconception is that the sole beneficiaries of the visa liberalisation process are the EaP countries, and the EU will have to foot the bill and suffer all the consequences. This implies that visa-free regime is simply a gift, a matter of good will on the part of the EU and not something the beneficiary countries have to earn by introducing many costly and complicated reforms. Yet, visa dialogue between the EU and the EaP countries (so far initiated only with Moldova and Ukraine, but Georgia is the next in line) is called a “dialogue” for a good reason. It is precisely because both sides are required to make an effort. And in fact, it is much more considerable on the part of the EaP countries. Besides, as mentioned before, the benefits of achieving visa-free regime with the Eastern EU neighbours may actually be greater for the EU itself.
Why the achievement of visa-free regime with the EaP countries should be so important? There is a number of sound arguments, which can be grouped into four categories: democratisation; security; exchange of knowledge and ideas; Europe’s solidarity. The first two are particularly important for the EU countries – it is in the best interest of the EU to have stable, democratic, reliable and cooperative neighbours, rather than unpredictable, unstable, authoritarian ones ready to push their problems across the borders. The other two last two, apart from tangible benefits of people to people contacts, pertain more to the general vision of Europe. If Europe wants to be an Open Europe, showing solidarity with its neighbours and benefiting to the fullest from the diversity, rather than a European Fortress, self-absorbed and impervious to other points of view – achieving visa-free regime with the EaP states is absolutely vital.
As already mentioned, the road to visa-free regime involves the fulfilment of a number of criteria. Today, only two out of six EaP countries have managed to sign Action Plans on visa liberalisation. By signing these documents, Moldova and Ukraine have agreed to introduce profound reforms that cover four main areas: document security and protection of personal data, counteracting illegal migration, security and public order, as well as protection of fundamental rights. Introduction of these reforms will ensure better cooperation between the EU and EaP, including close collaboration in border management (i.e. cooperation agreement with EUROPOL, introduction of biometric passports). In other words, under visa-free regime, external EU borders will be much better protected against illegal migrants, organised crime and trafficking of illegal goods, without imposing unnecessary burdens on regular, law-abiding EaP citizens.
Moreover, both preparations for visa-free regime as well as exercising its benefits by the EaP citizens will strongly contribute to democratisation and Europeisation of the Eastern neighbours. The fulfilment of criteria agreed between the EU and the EaP states will ensure greater freedom of media, better living standards (ie.g. countering corruption), greater respect for rights of minorities making these countries more immune to totalitarian governments and thus better and more reliable partners of the EU. It will also diminish push factors for long-term migration. Additionally, increased regular contacts between the EU and EaP citizens will contribute strongly to greater democratisation and will help to promote open society values in the EaP countries. Undemocratic leaders will thus lose their main argument: “Europe does not want us, why bother?”.
Contacts between people are also important for the exchange of ideas, know-how and knowledge, broadening our horizons, busting myths and stereotypes. Visas are an enormous physical and mental barrier in these contacts. Tourism is a way of learning from experience, but it is also a source of income for the receiving societies. Under the current visa-regime, the EU potential as a tourist destination is considerably limited. Let alone technical problems, many people are discouraged from going to places where they feel they are not welcome. As a result, not only the EaP countries, but also Europe lose on the opportunities rising from cross-border exchange.
Finally, especially the EU countries that joined the Union later and have lived through the experience of communism and totalitarian rule should be particularly sensible to the aspirations of their fellow Europeans, who today find themselves behind yet another “iron curtain”, the wall of visa regime. Not so long ago, citizens of Poland and Hungary, Estonia and theCzech Republic had to go over the same humiliating, time-consuming and costly procedures. These are the same counties that cooperate with the EaP states the most, host EaP citizens most often and know their neighbours the best. Today, they are the biggest advocates of visa regime liberalisation for the EaP countries. Poland even mentioned progress in visa liberalisation among its priorities for the Presidency in the EU Council. It is the task of these newcomers to the EU to show solidarity towards their direct neighbours and further promote visa-free regime for the EaP countries. It is also a challenge for the other EU member states to demonstrate trust towards their newer fellow members and listen to their arguments.