War in Ukraine: we explain the debate on the suspension of visas issued to Russian nationals by EU countries

Will the European Union take another step towards a total break with Russia and its nationals? On Tuesday August 30 and Wednesday August 31, EU Foreign Ministers are meeting in Prague (Czech Republic) to address the delicate issue of short-stay visas granted to Russian citizens, which several countries want to ban. However, this radical measure is far from unanimous from Lisbon to Tallinn, via Brussels. Explanations.

What are the representatives of the European Union debating?

In Prague, the Czech presidency of the European Union put on the agenda of an informal meeting of foreign ministers a burning question, six months after the start of the war in Ukraine: should we stop delivering Russian nationals with short-stay visas within EU countries, of which there are several hundred thousand to benefit?

In 2021, Russians were the most likely to apply for short-stay visas from the 26 Schengen countries. Of approximately three million applications received, 536,000 were for Russian nationals, according to the European Commission (link in English). These visas allow stay in the Schengen area for a maximum of 90 days per six-month period, whatever the reason (tourism, studies, business trips, etc.).

Which countries are in favor of this ban?

The Baltic countries, namely Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are campaigning for an outright ban on tourist visas granted to their Russian neighbors, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “Tourism is a privilege, not a right, and this privilege does not belong to the citizens of a country that is waging a genocidal war against Ukraine”Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas insisted on Thursday.

Other countries, such as Poland or the Czech Republic, also defend this ban. Bordering Russia, Finland, which processes some 1,000 visa applications a day, has already decided to reduce the number of visas issued to Russian tourists to 10% of this volume from September 1.

Who opposes this option within the EU?

Germany is at the forefront of countries resistant to this measure. For the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, this would penalize “all people who flee from Russia because they disagree with the Russian regime”. An opinion shared by the Portuguese authorities, for whom the sanctions must, in the first place, “aim at the Russian war industry, not the Russian people”.

As for the European Commission, it insists on the need to protect dissidents, journalists and families for humanitarian reasons, recalling that requests must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

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Can a compromise be found?

Between the ban and the status quo, an intermediate solution exists: it is a question of complicating the issuance of tourist visas for Russian citizens, as proposed by Finland, a country bordering Russia. This would involve the total suspension ofan agreement between the European Union and Moscow, signed in 2007, which facilitates the issuance of short-stay visas. Thus, this process would be longer, more expensive and more restrictive for the Russian population. Since the outbreak of the conflict, the EU has already partially suspended these issuance facilities for certain people linked to the regime (official delegations, holders of diplomatic passports, business leaders, etc.).

EU representatives defend this intermediate line. “I don’t think cutting ties with the Russian civilian population will help, and I don’t think this idea will get the required unanimity”, advanced Josep Borrell, Sunday evening, on the Austrian channel ORF TV. The spokesperson for European diplomacy believes that it is necessary “Review how some Russians get a visa. We need to be more selective.”

On Tuesday, the German government offered a compromise, limiting a suspension to the visa facility agreement and multiple-entry visas. “I think it can be a very good way to make it clear that we are suspending visa facilitation agreements, that we are no longer issuing multiple visas or multi-year visas”explained the head of German diplomacy, Annalena Baerbock.

And how does Russia position itself?

The Kremlin said Tuesday that Russia would retaliate if the European Union decides to suspend visas for Russians. “It is a very serious decision that could be taken against our citizens and such a decision cannot go unanswered”assured the spokesman of the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov. “Little by little, Brussels, like the European capitals, is showing a total lack of judgment (…) This irrationality, which borders on madness, allows such measures [sur les visas] to be discussed.”

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