While the process of harmonisaton with the acquis continues, the EU’s disunity and cautiousness limit its effectiveness.
The EU’s objective in the eastern neighbourhood is to link concessions on visas with institutional reforms. New member states such as Poland and Romania have argued for speedy liberalisation, which they see as bringing economic and political benefits. Old member states, such as Germany, Austria and France, which are concerned about immigration or the unsustainably fast pace of enlargement, want to proceed at a slower pace.
Visa facilitation and readmission agreements are already in place with Moldova and Ukraine, where up to 40 percent of visas are now issued free of charge. This serves the EU goal of promoting integration while minimising risks. The next step, following the Western Balkan scenario (see component 43), is to lift visas. In October, the European Council announced that Ukraine would be given an action plan with technical benchmarks that will pave the way to the “possible establishment of a visa-free travel regime” in the long run. The member states also mandated the European Commission to prepare an action plan with Moldova, which since July is part of a structured visa dialogue with the EU.
Ukraine and Moldova have been encouraged by the success of Western Balkan countries, which in turn has strengthened the EU’s hand in the eastern neighbourhood. The proviso is that the fulfilment of benchmarks does not automatically lead to the lifting of visas, which remains a political decision to be taken further down the road. It is hard to judge EU performance at this point as institutional and policy reforms in the EaP countries are still in their nascent stage. Visa liberalisation is a long-term process but it is clearly one of the few trump cards the EU is left with in the region. Taking a bolder approach and asking governments to reform policies and institutions to lift visa restrictions would increase the EU’s attractiveness across the region.