Smokescreen Integration: Will the ‘visa-free’ deal be the end of Kiev’s road?


December 8, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

According to media reports on December 8th, the European Council, European Parliament, and European Commission have signed an agreement on plans to guarantee a visa-free regime for the citizens of Ukraine and Georgia. At the same time, officials agreed on a mechanism to suspend the visa-free regime in emergency situations. Now the decision must be approved by a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg which might happen next week. In addition, the document must be approved by the national governments of all EU countries.

In Ukraine, this decision was presented by authorities as a major foreign policy achievement. President Poroshenko rushed to declare that the abolition of visa requirements is his personal merit when he announced the “encouraging news from Brussels resultant of my constant contact with EU leaders.”

Overall, judging by the press, the news has been greeted in Ukraine with optimism, but far from the euphoria radiating Poroshenko. The publication Zn.Ua, quoting the British The Financial Times, in my opinion correctly summarizes: “The  EU has decided to grant Ukraine a visa-free regime as a sign of support for the war-torn country that fears that the administration of the new US president, Donald Trump, could weaken the sanctions against Russia.” The title of the publication emphasizes the importance of the time factor, and the text expresses fear over the possible actions of newly-elected US President Donald Trump. The article goes on: “The question now is whether the US President will put pressure on the EU with the demand to weaken the penalties on Russia for its actions.” 

The EU has opted to give Ukraine the visa-free deal in advance while the new US administration has not yet reversed Washington’s policy of supporting Ukraine and putting pressure on Russia. The future will show whether this will happen, but the possibility of this is very real. For now, Ukraine has been given as much as possible – just not money or any real aid.

In an article published earlier on Fort Russ, I cited the opinion of my Prague-based colleague Alexander Gegalchiy in forecasting that Brussels could opt for granting Kiev a visa-free regime with the very different motivation that migration from Ukraine would be seen as an alternative to accepting migration from the Middle East. In reality, the free-visa regime with Ukraine means nothing for the EU (more on this below). But for Ukraine, it has important political and psychological value. Poroshenko will now endlessly present it as a major victory of Ukrainian (his own) diplomacy and as an important milestone on the path of Ukraine’s European integration. But the life of ordinary Ukrainians will be affected very little by the visa-free deal. And Ukraine itself, I suppose, will still have to pay for this symbolic gift.

Long before the decision was made, the symbolism of the visa-free regime for Ukraine was obvious. Ukrainian media have recognized that the introduction of the visa-free agreement will allow Ukrainian and Georgian citizens to freely enter and stay in the Schengen zone for 90 days within each 180 day period. However, only tourist visas are being abolished. For legal employment, Ukrainians and Georgians will still have to obtain permits.

In other words, the new situation will make life easier for Ukrainian tourists and help them tour the countries of Europe and spend their money there. Indeed, this is a nice gift for the most secure part of Ukrainian society. But the masses of potential Ukrainian migrant workers will not be affected. As before, they will have to obtain working visas or permits and, what’s more, the opportunities for Ukrainian citizens to find employment in EU countries will be reduced despite some exceptions (such as the example of the Czech Republic, which could refuse to accept Middle Eastern migrants under the pretext of already accepting Ukrainians). The possibility of EU integration or at least the opportunity to find employment in the EU was one of the factors contributing to relatively broad support for the Euromaidan. But the decision on introducing this “visa-free regime” is merely a smokescreen of Eurointegration and, indeed, only a caricature of a real, complete visa-free regime itself.

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It will be interesting to learn just what real compensation Brussels will receive for granting Kiev this symbolic gift. The European Union has constantly blackmailed Ukraine with the demand to remove the restrictions on the supply of Carpathian roundwood (unprocessed logs), otherwise threatening to refuse to decide on the visa question. Carpathian timber, in the end, is exported to Europe, thus finally killing the region’s ecology and depriving local lumberjacks and carpenters of work. It is very likely that this will neither the only nor the main gift that Ukraine will have to give in return. And symbolic gifts to Europe are expensive and have to be paid for somehow… 

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