Friday, January 31, 2014

EU-Ukraine: EU should act unilaterally on visas

  • The EU must reach out to citizens unilaterally on visas and travel, rather than engaging with Ukraine's incompetent and feckless officials.
After a distressing few weeks in Ukraine, the river Bug seems now to undoubtedly mark the boundary of free and unfree Europe. Somehow the visa free travel regime for EU and and other western visitors to come to Ukraine has survived up until now, but lawmakers are now looking at how to place restrictions on foreigners entering the country. They advocate a fee for entry (such as countries like Egypt currently operate) but, most scarily, a requirement that the person travelling can demonstrate funds of 400 Euros for each day of their stay, so a 10 day visit to Kiev would necessitate the traveller having a spare 4000 Euros idling away in the bank, clearly prohibitive to many potential visitors. Meanwhile, the EU-Ukraine visa dialogue still mumbles on about Ukraine and other EU eastern neighbours fulfiling 'conditions' and 'requiremements', when it's obvious that this doesn't achieve results.

The proposed restrictions are most likely aimed at disrupting small time activists, quite often ordinary westerners who are drawn to the protest movement and wish to offer moral support, evidenced by the various national flags which have shown up at Kiev's City Hall or on the famous Maidan tree. Many such people would be instantly priced out of coming to Ukraine. It would also be a kind of populist measure. Many Ukrainians would feel little sympathy for roeigners having to jump through hoops as they routinely have to do, but the reality of course is just people choosing not to come. It's already hardly a mecca for tourism, or on many people's bucket list. For Poles it could be quite traumatic, as even school study trips to 'Lwów' would be effectively thwarted. For Hungarians, links with relatives in Zakarpattia would suffer. The potential effect on families if implemented (and enforced of course) could be devastating. 

What's clear is that Ukraine's authrities have no interest whatsoever in their citizens, and in small (non-oligarchic) businesses. Casualties would be potential visitors to Lviv, touted in recent times as the next big tourism destination. It would deal a significant blow to other types of tourism too. The marriage agencies of Odesa or Yalta would be hit hard. It's also the authorities 'being clever' by trying not to untick any boxes in efforts for Ukrainians to gain visa free travel, but clealy it's not clever at all. It would do nothing to enhance trust and dialogue with the EU, already at rock bottom.  

The EU needs to fundamentally rethink the rules of doing business in this area. In my view, the problem is not necessarily visas, but the short duration of visas, the requirement to have different types of visa for different types of trips and the humiliating nature of gaining such visas. I would propose 5 year all-purpose, multi-entry visas, possibly biometric ones, a kind of 'Euro Visa' which could then be used in EU/EEA passport queues. This would effectively give most of the benefits of visa free travel, but would give states the option of withdrawing the privilege to those who overstay or work illegally. It is also something that the EU could do unilaterally, without waiting for some distant age where the Ukrainian authorities have suddenly become competent and started caring about their citizens. The same should be extended to all the EU's eastern neighbours, including Russia and Belarus, without consultation with their authorities. 

Travel is the single most powerful tool the EU has to change hearts and minds. The popularity of travel for Russian citizens form Kaliningrad to Poland, for example, will help in the long term to underme the societal myths of Eurasianism there. This is an important part of the EU staying relevant and exporting its values, at a time when it is more urgently needed than ever.

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