EU defense ministers are searching for a unified approach as to whether the bloc should ban Russian tourists. A visa agreement could be suspended.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy call for Russian citizens to be banned from entering the EU ignited a major debate in Europe: Is it acceptable that Russians can continue travelling to the EU as if the war of aggression against Ukraine wasn't happening?
According to Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, the answer to that question is no; so they've stopped issuing short-term visas to Russians. Germany, Greece, Cyprus and the European Commission on the other hand, have been more reserved and oppose a strict travel ban against Russians. Last week German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that it was Russian President Vladimir Putin's war, and for that reason it was difficult for him to support a blanket travel ban that would also impact innocent people.
The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU has put the visa discussion on the agenda at Tuesday's informal meeting of defense ministers in Prague. It's expected that an agreement with Russia that has been in effect since 2007, and which expedites the visa process, will be rescinded. EU diplomats have already confirmed as much in statements to the Financial Times.
A suspension of the visa agreement would complicate applications for short-term visas in the Schengen Area and make them more expensive. The diplomats also stated that a blanket travel ban, which would require unanimous support, isn't expected. In the meantime, the policies of individual EU states won't make much of a difference. Short-term tourist visas are valid in all 26 countries in the Schengen Area, no matter which EU country issues them.
How big is the problem?
According the EU border control agency Frontex, almost a million travelers with Russian passports have come to the EU since the war in Ukraine started six months ago. The overwhelming majority of these travelers arrived in Finland (333,000), Estonia (234,000), and Lithuania (132,000).
These have mostly been tourists who visit for a few days at a time. However, fewer than a million visas were issued because Russian citizens can travel in and out of the Schengen Area many times with the same 90-day visa. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, countries in the Schengen Area issued around 500,000 new visas to Russians every year.
Which countries do Russians visit?
The high number of trips by land to neighboring countries in the EU can be explained by the lack of direct flights between Russia and the EU since the outbreak of the war. As a result, countries like Germany and France are now more difficult to reach. According the Germany's Federal Foreign Office, German consulates in Russia issued 14,000 visas in the first half of 2022.
In 2019, before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, that number was almost 10 times as high. Fewer Russian vacationers could be found strolling along the Champs-Élysées this year as well, since Russians can't travel directly to France from EU countries. That means a flight from Moscow to Paris with a connection in Istanbul is possible for Russians, but a flight from Helsinki to Paris isn't allowed.
Greece and Cyprus had a large number of vacationers from Russia this year: A quarter of all tourists in Cyprus came from Russia. Northern Greece is also a popular travel destination in the EU for Russians who come via Serbia and Turkey. EU candidate Montenegro on the other hand, normally a popular location for Russian travelers, had far fewer travelers. Many seem to have opted for Turkey instead, and there's reason for that. Though Turkey is a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership, it does not participate in the sanctions against Russia, and still allows visa-free travel for Russians.
Can visa issuance be restricted?
According to the EU Commission, a blanket visa ban against Russians would be difficult to impose. In order to adhere to international law, some forms of travel must be permitted — for humanitarian reasons and in order to facilitate familial contact.
The issuance of short-term visas for the Schengen Area, however, can be heavily restricted. Each EU member state has a significant amount of leeway when it comes to evaluating visa applications. For example, member states can nullify visas that have already been issued, which Estonia is already doing.
Schengen visas are recognized by every EU member state, which means Estonia can't just refuse to recognize a visa that was issued by Germany or Sweden. The lack of border controls within Europe makes that virtually impossible.
But according to the EU Visa Coda, a tourist with a Schengen visa must spend most of their time in the country that issued their visa. Beyond that, changes to the political climate and the concerns about security can be justified reasons to reject a visa application.
Which restrictions are already in place?
Lithuania isn't the only country restricting visa issuance to Russians. Latvia, Finland, Poland the Czech Republic and Denmark want to restrict visa issuance as well.
According to the immigration-focused law firm Fragomen, the Netherlands, Belgium Spain and Romania have already greatly restricted their issuance of visas to Russians. Many EU member states have already thinned out the staffing of their consulates and embassies in Russia, making it more difficult to book the required personal appointments prior to getting a visa.
An agreement between the EU and Russia that streamlined the issuance of visas for Russian diplomats, government officials, and business people was suspended, though it's technically still in effect.
If the agreement were terminated, it would become more complicated and expensive for Russian citizens to apply for a visa. Since Russians already can't use western credit cards or bank accounts anymore, a lack of financial resources can be used as a justification for rejecting visa applications.
What are national visas?
EU member states can also issue visas that permit people to travel to and reside in their respective countries indefinitely. These visas are for people who want to work, study or do research; but they don't allow people to travel to other EU states. Russian dissidents who were forced to leave their homeland due to the war in Ukraine can also apply for these visas. Germany issued 10,000 of them in the first half of 2022.
What can Europe's foreign ministers do?
According to Ralph Bossong, a migration expert from the German Institute for International Security Affairs, the best approach would be to further restrict the issuance of visas without bans. He recommends more coordination among EU member states and better utilization of already existing rules.
In a podcast from the institute, Bossong said "We're interested in a unified European approach. In that sense, Germany could move more in the direction that eastern European and Baltic member states have gone.”
What are EU Parliament members demanding?
In an open letter to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, EU parliament members demanded that the issuance of visas to Russians be restricted, in addition to a full travel ban for 6,000 individuals from Russia's ruling elite.
For EU parliament member Manfred Weber, it's unthinkable that Russians can vacation on Sylt and be tended to by Ukrainian servers in restaurants. In an interview with German broadcaster ARD he said, "For me, it's hard to imagine that we have refugees from Ukraine, while at the same time there are Russians here just enjoying life.”